Hobson's Choice: LJ=CD?

Q: I applaud the Larry Johnson move; going from 2-7 to 7-2 will be an attitude change and should be a real benefit. I am certain: Marvin will have an absolute understanding for ALL that is expected or he's outta here.
*--Glenn, Cincinnati, OH

GLENN: As a long-time Bengals fan, Glenn, you were probably like me when you listened to Johnson's press conference here on Tuesday. Except for the part about wanting to flip burgers rather than play for the Bengals, didn't Johnson sound an awful lot like Corey Dillon, circa 2000? If so, then maybe the current Bengals locker room is as strong as the Super Bowl champion Patriots in 2004.

When he was asked about his problems in Kansas City, Johnson talked about the revolving door on the offensive line and at quarterback and the frustration of not being able to get anything in sync. Not to mention how everything he said was magnified because he was the star in a small market.

Flashback to the aftermath of the last game of the 1999 season in Jacksonville and Dillon telling anyone with a pulse and a media pass that he wasn't going to wear his Bengals helmet in the Pro Bowl.

When Patriots coach Bill Belichick swung the trade for Dillon in 2004, he did it because he believed that once Dillon was in a winning situation with a strong locker room grounded in The Patriot Way, he would be fine and fit in. Both have a Super Bowl ring from that '04 season to prove Belichick was right.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis must have had the same kind of sense with Johnson in their Nov. 12 phone call and while the media called it a done deal in the early afternoon of Nov. 16, it wasn't signed until after his 4 p.m. workout and a meeting with Lewis. The new Bengal Way is founded on the principle of second chances used by guys on the rebound like Johnson.

You can carry out the Dillon comparison even a little more. He was coming off his worst season in 2003 because of nagging injuries and the whispers were that he was done at age 29. When he turned 30, he was leading the Pats to the Super Bowl in a career year.

Johnson is coming off two subpar years after the 1,700 seasons of 2005 and 2006, but he says the broken foot that marred 2007 is a memory, and he did manage to average 4.5 yards per carry on nearly 200 carries amid the mayhem of '08. And, he turned 30 last Thursday.

I'm hesitant about the move because it's such a major deal in the middle of a beautiful run. With apologies to the '05 team that had a decent room, never has this locker room been so committed or together since the Boomer Esiason days and this is no reflection on Johnson. I give him the benefit of a doubt as a guy, but anytime you add a two-time Pro Bowler to any position or any team, whether it is Anthony Munoz or John Dillinger, there is bound to be some distraction and disruption, no matter how little.

But while I'm hesitant, I'm also impressed.

Impressed with how Johnson has come in here and quietly gone about his business and professionally met the media every time he's been asked.

Impressed by the bold move of management and Lewis. Bengals president Mike Brown gets ripped for being reactive instead of innovative and not caring enough about winning, but this move kills those two birds with one stone. If ever a move said how much Brown wants to win a Super Bowl, this one and Carson Palmer's $130 million contract lead the evidence list.

Impressed, too, with how Cedric Benson has responded. Obviously the move is a little unsettling to him judging by some of his quotes, but overall he's been positive and upbeat. In the end, the effectiveness of the move is going to be decided by Johnson's play and Benson's response to it. So far, so good.

And impressed with this commitment to the running game. Love it. With Benson injured, they could have thrown up their hands, activated James Johnson for Sunday, and said they'll go back to jacking it up 35 times a game with three wides.

But they know that style won them squat and the run has brought them to the brink of an AFC North title.

Yeah, Glenn. In a lot of ways, I like the move, too. I guess you've dragged me from hesitant to the fence.

Q: How hard will it be for Andre Smith to unseat Dennis Roland as the RT this season? I see it as completely possible that he doesn't. Roland continues to improve significantly each week. I know ... it ain't pretty to watch, huh? But he is so tall and wide, and he's very hard to get around. Once he gets a body on them, they don't get away from him. They will definitely keep using him in the unbalanced line. He's a key piece in that formation. But I'm wondering if in the future we aren't better off with Smith at LT and Whit back at LG, or even Smith at LG and Roland at RT? Roland just fits that RT mold so well, but then again, Andre does too.
*--Matt, South Vienna, OH

MATT: Before the season, there were some around the club that believed the best positions for Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith were guard. But certainly in the first nine games of the season Whitworth has proved his lot as a very good left tackle and it's going to be tough to get him out of there. The jury, of course, is still out on Smith.

But I think we'll see Smith at some point this season, maybe in the unbalanced line or as an extra tight end. Hey, you could put me behind Bobbie Williams, Roland and Smith, and I'd run for 4.2 yards.

Don't you get the sense that they're starting to think they can pound their way to this thing with a punishing ground game and a defense that doesn't give up many points? The Larry Johnson pickup is the clearest sign yet of how they're going to approach the stretch run. With tough road games at Minnesota, San Diego and the Jets in the last month, the idea seems to be more runs, more big backs, more big linemen, more big, big, big.

It would be a perfect way to ease Smith into it without disrupting the this-is-why-technique-is-best clinic Roland is delivering over there weekly at right tackle. It would be hard to see Smith starting there in the last six games, wouldn't it? Unless he comes in as advertised, but he's had to learn and rehab a lot in the last three months.

As for the future, Smith is going to be starting somewhere on the line next year but I think they're just thinking about getting out of Oakland Sunday night and keeping a game ahead of the Steelers. The more tackles, the merrier, though. In the offensive line guru world of Jim McNally and Paul Alexander, you can always make a tackle a guard but it never seems to be able to go the other way.

In the last days of that great Bengals offensive line McNally built in the 1980s, he wistfully wondered about putting Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz and his bookend at right, Joe Walter, inside at guard if he could just get two good young tackles. But by the time the Bengals drafted Willie Anderson in 1996, Muñoz was retired and McNally was coaching in Carolina.

You're right about Roland, eh? An ugly duckling myself, I love the way the guy plays. He gets the job done and in this style-over-substance world that always seems to end up on YouTube for doing nothing but living, his low-profile but winning play is more than refreshing.

Q: The Oakland game has all the markings of a classic "trap" game. How can we avoid a letdown for this game which, on paper, should be an easy win?
*--Scott, Huntington, WV

SCOTT: Yeah, you're right. If the Texans were a "trap game" at home, then this one is booby-trapped. A game 3,000 miles away against a team a million miles from contention that has a lot of talent and athleticism.

We'll know just as much about the Bengals after this game as we did after last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh.

Maybe more.

Their 18-12 win at Heinz showed how tough, competitive, and confident they are on the offensive line and all over the defense. To execute that well on the greensward of the defending Super Bowl champions showed a great brew of discipline and toughness.

Now we'll find out how tough they are mentally and how much they learned from that flat-line loss to Houston. The loss to the Texans came after three consecutive come-from-behind division victories secured on their last snap. Now they play Oakland after back-to-back sweeps of their main division rivals.

It would be an upset if they don't have a letdown. The best way to avoid it?

Do what Marvin did this week.

Remind them how they got here and that they can't play according to the win level of the foe, and if that means handing out T-shirts with some secret message from a cereal box, so be it. And the other side of the Larry Johnson signing is instead of causing a distraction, it brought a snap-crackle-pop to the week that might of been missing.

And you have to believe Marvin has pointed at the AFC North standings. The Steelers aren't going away. They're going to chew on their leg the rest of the way. The Bengals could sweep the division and still finish in second place.

Which should be plenty of incentive.

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