11-20-03, 6:50 p.m.
Updated: 11-20-03, 10:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Topic of the day:
Can Rudi Johnson and Corey Dillon flourish in the same backfield? Or, at the very least, take turns trying to find the hot hand and fresh legs?
According to James Brooks, who gained the most scrimmage yards in Bengals history despite sharing the ball with fellow running backs such as Charles Alexander, Larry Kinnebrew, Ickey Woods, Stanford Jennings, and Harold Green during eight seasons.
And, not so other minor characters such as head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski agree.
"Every running back wants to carry the ball, and that's only natural," Brooks said Thursday. "Someone is going to have to step up and say, 'Who ever is hot should play,' and that's just a matter of growing up. It usually all works out if you're thinking about the team. Ickey got the pub, I went to the Pro Bowl, and we went to the Super Bowl, so it all worked out for everyone."
Johnson has earned it. He's hot with three 100-yard games in his four starts in place of the injured Dillon. Dillon has earned it. The three-time Pro Bowler passed Brooks as the club's all-time rusher last season. After tuning up last week with his rehabbing groin on six carries for 21 yards in the first half against the Chiefs, Dillon says he's ready to play a full game for the first time since the opener.
"Obviously, Corey is our guy and we're always going to work to give him an opportunity to get him back to where he's got the tempo and the feel for it," said Lewis, who won't announce his starter until Sunday, but maybe he just did. Or didn't.
The dilemma? Both are strong-legged, bruising backs that get better the more carries they get.
Last week, 73 of Johnson's 165 yards came in the fourth quarter. His longest run of the season, a 54-yarder, came on his 19th run of the day. When Dillon set a NFL record with 278 yards three years ago against Denver, his longest runs came on his 19th (65 yards) and 22nd (41 yards) carries.
"Three or four carries just doesn't cut it for me. I'm warm at 20," Dillon said. "Me and Rudi are similar in some ways and some ways we're not. We need a lot of carries to get rolling. That's just the bottom line. I'm not warm until 15 and above. Only way to do it is to get carries. There's not too much I can do about it. I don't run the show. I just run the play."
But Dillon doesn't see a conflict of interest, while Lewis salivates at thoughts of one of them catching the ball in the open field to force the defense
to commit as Bratkowski dreams about rested 220-pound bodies alternately smashing into cold and tired defensive backs in a December fourth quarter.
Bratkowski admits it would be unconventional to have both on the field at the same time because they both are used with lead blockers and neither of them qualifies as a fullback.
"But there are options with both of them out there," Bratkowski said. "And the biggest thing you've got going for you is you've got two healthy, relatively fresh guys for late in the season because of the injury situation earlier in the year."
As Lewis made a mental note to make sure there are two stationary bikes on the sidelines this Sunday in San Diego, he said identifying the hot back won't take 15 carries but seeing how they come out of halftime. Johnson and Dillon both rode the bike at the half last week to stay loose, but Dillon didn't play in what amounted to a dry run for San Diego.
"The big thing was seeing how I held up after taking a hit and cutting," Dillon said. "I'm fine."
And, if they can't decide who's hot, Lewis likes the idea of both being in the backfield because it forces the pass defense to cover an extra player.
"It puts pressure on the defense," Lewis said. "Whether you're running it and have one-back sets and handing it off, or throwing it to a guy versus a zone coverage, or it gives you a chance (if they go) man-to-man stuff, that's where (the wide receivers) have flourished."
Former Bengals head coach Sam Wyche made it work with Brooks & Co., but he said it was only because the backs involved put the team ahead of themselves.
He did say the hot back has to emerge before 15 carries.
"The game might be over by then," Wyche said. "The nice thing is they seem to support each other. There's nothing like fresh legs late in a game, and the thing is that both guys will have fresh legs."
Brooks has been pleased to hear Dillon's recent comments about sharing the ball and doing what's best to make the playoffs.
"I think Corey is a great back with his size and speed," said Brooks, whose scrimmage yards record will be broken when Dillon gets 248 more. "You just have to think before you talk and I'm glad to hear him say some of those things because it's the only way it will work.
"And Rudi is playing so well and I'm so happy for him because we're both Auburn guys. I can't believe some of the things he's doing."
Brooks thinks back to that magical season of 1988, when he had 931 yards on 182 carries and eight touchdowns, and Woods had 1,066 yards on 203 carries and 15 touchdowns.
Brooks thinks that season shows how two backs can be effective in different weeks, different situations, and even in different parts of the field. Woods had five 100-yard games, Brooks two.
"I got us from the 20 to 20, and Ickey scored the touchdowns and got the pub," Brooks said. "That's OK. When the season was over, the players voted me to the Pro Bowl, and we went to the Super Bowl.
"That was the big thing," Brooks said. "But I'll tell you this. We wouldn't have gone to the Super Bowl if I complained about it."
Johnson and Dillon aren't complaining about a situation that may or may not become a huge departure from their roles as feature backs from junior college to college to the pros. The fewest carries Dillon has had in a NFL season in which he was the starter for all 16 games is 262 in 1998 and he hasn't had fewer than 314 in the previous three seasons.
Brooks, meanwhile, was used to sharing the ball. The most carries he had in a season was 221 in 1989 when he had a career-high 1,239 yards, and he had more than 200 carries just twice.
"I grew up doing it like that," Brooks said. "Remember, I played at Auburn when Joe Cribbs and William Andrews were there.
"The one thing that saved it is I blocked," Brooks said of the Bengals scheme. "That's the key. If one of the guys can't block, that would be tough."
Lewis thinks both players are willing and good enough blockers because of what they do in pass protection. Whatever happens, everyone involved is intrigued by the possibilities and Dillon's willingness to try and make it work.
And Brooks is enjoying going to the games again.
"This is the first time I've sat down and watched these guys for a long time and I'm really enjoying it," Brooks said.
The fans are into it, too. Brooks said he hasn't been able to stay in his seat because of the autograph seekers.
"It's fun to see," he said.