Johnson hopes to cap big week

11-14-03, 7:45 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The money the Bengals gave Chad Johnson might change the way they live under the salary cap. But he says it won't change his approach to living. Which is exactly why the Bengals gave him the most money they ever gave anyone so early in their career when they gave him a five-year contract extension earlier this week.

"Won't change a thing," Johnson said.

He comes from one of the poorest sections of Miami, Fla., in Liberty City, but don't look for a sprawling new mansion in the suburbs.

His current routine is to pretty much sleep in the players' lounge Paul Brown Stadium Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the rest of the week he bounces between the film room and his downtown apartment a fly pattern away at One Lytle Place.

"I watch tape till late, get a blanket, sleep on one of the couches and I'm right here for breakfast at 7," Johnson said.

Ever since he dropped a fourth-down pass on the Colts 25 on the last play of a 28-21 loss last year, he has caught 106 balls for 1,823 yards over the last 20 games for an average of 91 yards. No question they are franchise numbers in this day and age when game-breaking, down-field speed receivers are a NFL must.

If he keeps up that pace, he'll pass Isaac Curtis as the club's all-time receiving yardage leader with 7,102 yards in 53 games. Or, with three games left in the 2006 season. Plenty of time before his five-year extension runs out in 2009.

But here's a guy who just two years ago came out of Oregon State labeled a risk with just one season of Division I under his belt and questions about his maturity on and off the field over his head. Backing up the bank would have been unthinkable, but his development in both places has been stunning and impressive enough to transform him a high-risk mortgage to a solid investment plan.

"We think he's the kind of person who is driven to be good and that he's never going to change the approach he brings to the game," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He's proven to be the kind of guy and talent that you'd want to lock up and make a Bengal for a long time."

The happy-go-lucky Johnson is proving to be one of the most popular and charismatic players in club history. His outrageous pronouncements set him up for ribbing from his teammates and his coaches, such as when it comes to Bratkowski praising his all-out play in practice.

"He'll take a few plays off in the running game," Bratkowski said. "Our goal as coaches is getting him to block in that same all-out way he goes in the passing game."

Right tackle Willie Anderson wanted to have fun with Johnson this past Wednesday and give the Chiefs something to think about at the same time. After hearing Johnson's guarantee at the top of the news all week, Anderson went up to Johnson in the weight room Wednesday morning and told him he to watch the papers because he was going to play with him and the Chiefs.

"I just wanted to play a little bad cop-good cop and get the Chiefs wondering what was going on out here," Anderson said. "So I said some stuff criticizing Chad, but I was just kidding around. I was quoted accurately, but it just came out wrong and I think it got taken out of context a little bit. Hey, I'm his biggest fan."

Anderson ripped Johnson for making the guarantee and called him a self-promoter in his bid to get a new deal, even asking how the Bengals could be inspired by a guy that put gold teeth in his mouth.

"I didn't mean it to come off that we don't respect Chad and I had no idea he was signing his contract," Anderson said. "It just got messed up. I'm happy he got paid. He's deserved it. He's earned it. I love watching the guy play."

The 340-pound Anderson says he tries to be the "third or fourth guy," to greet Johnson in the end zone after one of his long touchdowns, which means Anderson is hauling. They also have a deal. If Johnson doesn't see him in the end zone, he looks for him on the sideline.

And it was Anderson who called Johnson right away Sunday night when he saw that he had taken over the AFC lead in receiving yards.

"The guy is just having a huge year and he's fun to watch," Anderson said.

Johnson and Bratkowski say he has to get better. Bratkowski says, "his game is still developing. It's still a process. He's made great progress and he'll make more." Johnson calls Bratkowski a huge factor in his development and praises quarterback Jon Kitna for teaching him that going hard in practice makes the game easier.

"The light went on for me," said Johnson of that dropped pass in Indianapolis.

Now he has caught a bushel of money that has been reported as much as $26 million over the next five years with just a little less than half of it up front at the tender age of 25

"I want to sign two more contracts. Two-and-a-half," said Johnson, which would make him about 45.

He says he won't play that long. Probably not as long as 41-year-old Jerry Rice. But he was interested to know that Curis is the only one of the Bengals' top five receivers of all-time who have caught a ball for them after the age of 30.

"I'll be here long after 30," Johnson said.

And he wants to be because of what he sees happening with the organization. On Thursday, he was effusive in his endorsement of what Bengals President Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis have done since January.

"No one can say anything bad about this organization right now," Johnson said. "From top to bottom."

And the wheels still continue to turn.

Before Johnson's signing, national outlets reported the Bengals have $13-14 million in room under the salary cap. But that's only with about 35 players under contract and not counting the estimated $4 million they need to sign rookies.

They probably structured the contract so about a $1 million or so of the money went into the '03 cap, space that was made available when they cut some high-priced veterans at the end of training camp.

On Thursday, Johnson seemed a bit subdued.

"This will be my last guarantee," Johnson said. "I should have let my play do the speaking. But you know me. That's hard. There are some older people in the organization that opened my eyes a little bit and had me looking at the guarantee from different ways. How other people take it and the way it affects everyone around me."

Johnson wouldn't give up the older person, but said, "They've opened my eyes and I've seen it that way. I've got no regrets. I just want to go play. I can't wait."

Johnson and most of his teammates are calling Sunday's game against the Chiefs their biggest game since they've been Bengals. Johnson seemed concerned that his mega deal might be a distraction. The signing bonus is reportedly bigger than running back Corey Dillon's $10.5 million bonus in 2001

"That's my guy. He earned it," Dillon said. "And that's the good thing. It wasn't handed to him. It wasn't catered to him. He came in here and played his butt off. He s got the stats to back it up. He deserves to get paid. If there's any jealousy about this guy getting paid, then somebody needs to get their oil checked about that."

DILLON EYES NEXT WEEK, BUT: Before Thursday's practice, running back Corey Dillon thought he was a longshot to play Sunday against the Chiefs and a lock to play the next week in San Diego as his injured groin improves. Now after an encouraging practice, Dillon thinks there's a better chance than that and he'll go into Sunday's game-time decision at 50-50.

"Real good. Much better. I did everything they wanted me to," said Dillon, who indicated the injury is more serious than a strain.

If there is any doubt Dillon is trying to get back in time for the playoff push, note what happened Wednesday. Dillon, who hates needles, took one four or five times to drain fluid that had had congealed into what he called the size of a grapefruit. Then he was back out Thursday morning trying cuts in the walk-through and didn't feel any pain.

But Dillon is trying to be careful after coming back too soon against Baltimore and Arizona, although he is upset at what perceives as media slams against his toughness and talent ("I feel like concrete right now and I feel like a flock of pigeons flew over it and dropped a couple of loads") even though he is hurt.

Dillon went out of his way Thursday to praise his backup, Rudi Johnson, and said he's excited about getting back in the middle of his first playoff run and supports his teammates. He also said he worked out his absence from Sunday's game with head coach Marvin Lewis, he's not ready for a second-best role, and when he returns he plans, "to start wrecking the league just to let them know I'm still here."

He also plans to be on the sidelines Sunday in uniform or not.

"I'm happy for Rudi. I'm happy he's getting the spotlight. He's done great job," Dillon said. "Rudi's my guy. He's a great back and he deserves it.

"I'm saying, there's not any doubt. I'm (boxing champion) Roy Jones. I'm not dodging anybody when healthy. All I'm saying is when I'm healthy, pound-for-pound, I'm the Roy Jones of the industry. I'm the best in the game. Check the books," Dillon said. "I've got some of the top games in the history of the National Football League."

He also said his relationship with Lewis is more open than with anybody in the organization and is much better than the media portrays it.

"He's looking out for my best interests. He's trying to get me healthy," Dillon said.

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