Chad not as bold, but won't fold

9-25-03, 8 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

This is what wide receiver Chad Johnson said the Wednesday before the last time the Bengals played the Browns:

"It has nothing to do with Cleveland at all," Johnson said, clarifying no disrespect intended for the Browns. "They just happen to be the team we're playing. We're going to win."

This is what Johnson, on pace to shatter the Bengals' single-season receiving record, said this Wednesday:

"I was this close. I had to think about it," said Johnson, after nearly offering another guarantee. "Last year was different. When you're that far out, I just threw it out there. . .to get everybody riled up, fired up."

Johnson keeps learning. He learned after the Browns beat the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium four days after his call, 27-20, maybe he shouldn't have said that much. Just like he learned last Sunday that if he pops off to a coach, he'll pay. Johnson pretty much admitted Wednesday it was his mouth that got him benched for the first series against the Steelers.

But he knows this is a big one. He didn't call it a must win like Jon Kitna ("You hate to say it's a must win, but it's about as close as it comes,"), but he

thinks it's absolutely key to win the next three.

"8-8 will get you into the playoffs, 9-7 gets you to the playoffs," Johnson said. "You get behind the eight ball, you have to work that much harder to get out of that hole. Let's get out of it now. It's only the third week. Let's get to 2-3 to the bye, come back fresh for Baltimore, 3-3, we're even and go from there."

There may be no guarantees, but that won't stop Sunday from being Trash Day in Cleveland. Johnson is going to keep spewing, particularly with the University of Miami's Earl Little in the Browns' secondary.

"It's a Miami thing," said Johnson, who is from Miami and has become close with several Hurricanes. "I was doing the same thing with Phillip (Raiders cornerback Buchanon) all day."

All this is being backed up. He leads all AFC receivers with 303 yards and is trying to join Isaac Curtis and Eddie Brown as the only Bengals to lead the AFC in receiving. He's on pace for 1,616 yards, far ahead of Brown's team record 1,273 in 1988.

But he is trying to bite his tongue, too, after this past weekend's incident.

"It's my mouth that's always gotten me in trouble," Johnson said. "It was so small. But the point of Marvin's thing is being disciplined, letting me know he doesn't care how small it is. It was like some kindergarten stuff, but he's not having it."

Johnson said he was two hours early when the team had to show up at the hotel Saturday, so he said Lewis' move had nothing to do with being late.

"That's being the general that he is," Johnson said. "He's not playing games, man."

STAY IN SCHOOL: Several of those involved in Sunday's all-Ohio NFL edition think Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett should stay in school. Clarett, who has played just one season, sued the NFL earlier this week in an effort to get into the league before he has played three seasons.

"I would have tried another route," said Bengals running back Rudi Johnson. "There's too much to learn and this isn't the NBA. It's much more physical."

Johnson came out of Auburn a year early, but he

didn't think he was ready until he followed up his MVP performance in the national junior college title game with a junior year he was named the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year.

"I know I wasn't ready coming out as a freshman, and I came out early, but I had three years and I learned a lot," Johnson said.

Wide receiver Chad Johnson, another JUCO who came out of high school at 160 pounds, said he physically couldn't have made the move. And he said he certainly would have had problems with the Xs and Os.

"Come on in. Welcome to the NFL. Might not make it past the first game," Johnson said. "It's a big jump. This isn't the NBA."

Both Cleveland and Cincinnati head coaches are against the younger players coming in. Butch Davis, a former University of Miami head coach, thinks for every high school senior who makes it, it will destroy the careers of 25 others.

"I think history has proven that most of the guys who come out early should stay in college," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "They would be much better players, and much better people. Sometimes the circumstances force them into the NFL for opportunity. For the most part, any coach or anybody that has dealt with young guys in that situation would prefer them to enjoy college while they can, because you can't get those years back. The NFL will be there, but there is no way to get that time back."

Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna thinks the NFL poses more difficult challenges than the other pro games.

"This is a different league. In basketball you can have a target on your back, but no one is going to try to kill you," Kitna said. "In football people take that personally, and they can actually do bodily harm to you. I guess the same thing happens in hockey -- that's a fairly physical sport also.

"Are there people physically and mentally ready to do it? Probably, but for our guys it is different. Basketball, baseball, and hockey is different because those guys are playing games every-other day or so, and baseball every day. Here, you have a lot of mental work that has to take place. The mental aspect, I think, would be the hardest thing."

SLANTS AND SCREENS: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis thinks he might be the only guy to have worked in the facilities of all four teams in the AFC North. After leaving the Steelers, he joined the Ravens just as they were leaving Cleveland for Baltimore in the offseason of 1996, and spent his first couple of weeks on the job working at the Browns' practice site. . .

Bengals RB Corey Dillon (groin) has been upgraded to probable for Sunday's game in Cleveland, but he didn't practice Wednesday. He did look nimble in doing drills on the side with trainer Billy Brooks. Lewis said the injury has improved each day since he strained it last Sunday and all signs are he'll play. One of his backups, RB Rudi Johnson

(thigh) is also listed as probable and Johnson said before practice he expects to go full tilt this week for the first time since he suffered the strain in the pre-season finale. . .

WR T.J Houshmandzadeh (hamstring) has been ruled out again for this week and probably won't be back until after the Oct. 12 bye. TE Matt Schobel (hamstring) is doubtful. . .

Browns QB Kelly Holcomb (ankle) said before practice Wednesday he thinks he can play, but he wants to see how his hairline fracture reacts in practice. But he didn't do much as Tim Couch took the bulk of the snaps while Holcomb wore braces on both ankles. Apparently his sprained ankle is giving him as much pain as the broken one. He's listed as questionable, and head coach Butch Davis said he won't know for sure until Sunday. . .Browns WR Dennis Northcutt (chest) and CB Michael Lehan (hamstring) are also questionable. . .

Reiterating what the club has said since problems arose three years ago, Bengals public relations director Jack Brennan said Wednesday the club is looking at all options concerning the beleaguered grass at Paul Brown Stadium and that includes synthetic surfaces.

On Wednesday, Lewis downplayed Dillon's criticism of the field earlier in the week.

"Both teams play on that field. The field will be fine. It will be something we will take care of in due time," Lewis said. "From what everyone tells me, the field is in a lot better shape than it has ever been, and that is a good thing. We have to win on the field. They played on the field and they beat us, and it's not the field's fault.". . .

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