Rashad Jeanty laughs because that's what Brandon Johnson makes him do. Even when he cuts his hair. Which as the resident Bengals barber is something Johnson does quite often.
But he didn't laugh the day he drew blood on Jeanty's scalp with a new razor.
"It was nothing, but Brandon thought it was blood," Jeanty says. "And he got mad at himself. He was upset. He takes his work seriously."
Johnson has used that attention to detail on the field to become one of the most valuable Bengals on defense and on Thursday the Bengals cut no corners when they offered the backup WILL linebacker their highest tender for a restricted free agent, a one-year deal of $1.8 million that would net the Bengals a second-round draft pick in compensation if they let another team sign him.
That's miles away from the fifth-rounder that the Cardinals decided not to tender after he played in just six games for them during his first two seasons in the league. Like Johnson says, "When they first clean house, people usually tend to throw away the things they never use. I was one of them."
Johnson, who turns 27 next month, has become a versatile household item in his two seasons at Paul Brown Stadium. Jeff FitzGerald, his position coach, views him as not only a starter but as a team leader who is "very interactive" on the field and in the meeting room.
"A great asset," FitzGerald says. "He's smart. He knows the game and a great guy to have in your room."
Indeed, Johnson is one of the many good guys that overtook the Bengals locker room last year and fostered that out-of-nowhere AFC North title season with a 10-6 season built largely on Mike Zimmer's defense, the late heroics of quarterback Carson Palmer, and chemistry.
"I like the style of Zim and Fitz. They're both no-nonsense. They don't get caught up in the static," Johnson says. "I like it when Zim yells at me. That's kind of where I came from. Bobby Petrino (in college) was a (bleep). Zim is kind of one. A great coach. A lot of coaches yell at players like they meant to make a mistake. But Fitz is never that way. He says, 'Let's learn from it.' "
Johnson has learned enough to be one of Zimmer's aces-in-the-hole on third down as a wild card. At 6-5, 243 pounds, Johnson can drop into coverage or blitz and he has become top flight in defending routes. His 1.5 sacks came when the Bengals held the prolific Ravens to one touchdown on Nov. 8 and he made a memorable play on Jets tight end Dustin Keller in the playoffs when he recovered quickly enough to knock away a third-down pass at the last instant deep down the seam.
"Each week I get some kind of matchup man-to-man," Johnson says. "(Todd) Heap. (Antonio) Gates. Sometimes (Visanthe) Shiancoe. They tend to use me pretty well. They keep me covered up with linemen most of the time because I'm a smaller guy. They do a good job using my strengths."
Johnson is a key man in Zimmer's offseason project to improve the linebackers as well the rest of the defense against the pass in a schedule that features four of the top five teams at generating passing yards in the NFL last season.
Johnson played in every game last season with three starts and had the seventh-most tackles from scrimmage (67) and was second on special-teams tackles (12) along with a fumble recovery and three passes defensed. He started at SAM backer when Jeanty broke his lower leg on the opening kickoff of the Wild Card game.
As much as his versatility, there is Johnson's elder statesman-like leadership. He says that maturity may have come from spending his weekends in the barbershop, Ladies and Gents, his uncle ran in the Pratt City section of Birmingham, Ala. An only child, Johnson gravitated to the place where his grandfather also cut hair.
"I think hanging around people that are older makes you more mature," Johnson says."The closest person to me in age was another uncle and he's 10 years older than me. They'd talk about everything (in the barbershop). The pretty girl on TV. What the president was doing. The Birmingham Barons are terrible. That's our baseball team. The Alabama Stallions back in the day. It was a good place to hang out. Sometimes I'd be sweeping or he'd kick me out if I was being a pain in the butt.
"One of the best things about the barbershop is after I played a game in Little League football or something like that. My grandfather would call my uncle and tell him how I did and I'd come in and he'd say, 'Here's my nephew. He's going to be a great one. He's going to be the man.' That was fun."
They taught him to cut hair and he does it well enough that he used to get paid five and 10 bucks here and there at Louisville. Now he does it for free for teammates and friends. He lives in Arizona and "I lined up Tank Johnson the other day," he says. "If they call or text, 'Hey can you shave me up?' I'll get them lined up."
The backer corps gives Johnson a workout. TV star and middle linebacker Dhani Jones let him do it and Johnson says, "He was actually no problem at all. He just let me do it." Secondary coach Kevin Coyle got a trim late in the season and Johnson advised him to grow out his goatee "like George Clooney, but he shaved it off because it was too itchy."
Johnson says he did make a mistake on defensive lineman Frostee Rucker and Rucker ended up wearing a ballcap for a month.
"I guess he thought it was too low. A lot of people thought it looked OK," Johnson says. "He knows I'm good. He let me do it again."
Johnson let his buddy cut his hair the other day before he went to get his barber license because "everybody has to practice," he says. He doesn't have his license, but he's got free reign to cut hair and guys down to size in the locker room busting.
"He's just a funny dude," Jeanty says. "He does great imitations. He's got Abdul (Hodge) down pat. Brandon's the kind of guy he'll do anything for you at any time. He's a great friend to have."
After Thursday's spring cleaning, Johnson's Bengals barbershop remains open.
In addition to Johnson, the Bengals made restricted free agents of five other players in Hodge, Jeanty, cornerback David Jones, left guard Evan Mathis and defensive lineman Frostee Rucker. While Johnson was tendered at a second-round amount, the other five were offered at "draft level status,"
The Bengals also announced they tendered offers to five players who are classified as third-year players for 2010 and aren't eligible for free agency. They now have exclusive rights to center Kyle Cook, safety Kyries Hebert, left guard Nate Livings, quarterback Jordan Palmer and right tackle Dennis Roland.
By making the RFA tenders, the Bengals have the right to retain the players by matching any offer sheet. If an RFA does not sign an offer from another team, he can remain with the Bengals by signing the one-year tender, or by negotiating a longer-term contract.
With Mathis a fifth-year player, his tender of $1.22 million would net the Bengals a third-round pick. Rucker and Hodge, also third-round picks, were tendered $1.17 million as fourth-year players. So was Jones, a fifth-round pick, and Jeanty, a college free agent with no compensation.
The five exclusive rights players were each tendered according to their years of experience at either $545,000 or $470,000.