Michael Johnson returned to the Bengals Sunday with a new number at an old position after he agreed to a four-year deal in one of the most sought after reunions in club history.
"Next to Selma, Alabama, this is my home," Johnson said Sunday morning. "Everything from my brothers on the field, to the community, to the stadium tours I did with the kids. Everything about it. I'm blessed. How many people get a chance to do this?"
The deal is believed to be in the $24 million range with incentives, which means the Bengals have done about $23 million in deals under the salary cap in the past nine days. They've shored up their front seven with Johnson, the re-signing of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and the signing of former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk while solidifying their offensive line with the re-signings of starting left guard Clint Boling and backup tackle Eric Winston.
That would suggest the Bengals are left to do minimum deals with any other free agents.
"Our entire organization is just ecstatic about getting Mike back," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in a news release. "He's earned tremendous respect from coaches, teammates and management. He did tremendous things for us while he was here, and we look forward to having him blend back in and uplift us as defensive football team."
With one flick of the pen, the Bengals have addressed their pass-rush problems that emerged when Johnson went to Tampa Bay in free agency 53 weeks ago. During his five seasons in Cincinnati wearing No. 93 at right end, he was a relentless three-down player against the run while racking up 26.5 sacks and 27 tipped balls. He says he'll wear No. 90 this trip. Right end Will Clarke, last year's third-round pick, wears No. 93.
"Agent 90," he said. "I left wearing 93, now I'm back wearing 90 and I'm going to be better. I said at the end of the last year that 2015 is going to be the best year of my life."
Johnson went to dinner Saturday night in downtown Cincinnati at Jeff Ruby's with his agent, former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, as well as Lewis, defensive line coach Jay Hayes and two mates, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and defensive tackle Domata Peko. And he felt the love from the city.
"I must have had 50 hugs and handshakes. 'Are you coming back,'" Johnson said. "Believe me, the feeling is
Michael Johnson returns to the Bengals after signing a four year deal.
There was also a Skype session with quarterback Andy Dalton Saturday night, set up by offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, another dinner guest.
"Come back home," Johnson said of the message.
In a move that rivals the Carson Palmer trade of three years ago (when the Bengals got Dre Kirkpatrick and Giovani Bernard in the draft with Oakland's draft picks), the Bengals re-signed Johnson a month before they get a third-round pick as compensation for losing him.
It came courtesy of the Buccaneers releasing Johnson on Wednesday after the first season of his five-year, $43 million contract. He struggled in Tampa Bay with injury and had just four sacks.
"I'm not going to make excuses. My production wasn't what it needs to be last year for whatever reason," Johnson said in a conference call with the Cincinnati media. "I got the high ankle sprain on the second play of the first game. You can look around the league and see what happens with high ankle sprains. It was tough. I tried to battle through it. I wanted to go back and show them up what I had, but it didn't happen. Cincinnati is going to get the best season of my career."
The signing re-unites the Fisher Price Package of 2010-2013, when Johnson teamed with 2010 rookies Carlos Dunlap at end and Geno Atkins at tackle. Along with the veteran Peko and a suffocating rotation, they formed one of the league's more dominant defensive lines. It culminated in 2012 when Atkins had 12.5 sacks and Johnson added 11.5. With all three getting big money since, the Fisher Price package is now the Wall Street Wall.
Even last year when he was gone, Johnson stayed in the D-line's text group and the line Skyped him as they rode the bus back from the airport on the trip from Houston the week before they went to Tampa.
"I feel like everybody knows we play well together. I don't know why, we just do," Johnson said. "We've got that chemistry, that bond. We text each other in that group right now making jokes and laughing. That's' what makes things go. When you care about them, they care about you. It's like brothers. We go to bat for each other. If you've never been a part of something like that, it's hard to explain.
"We kept in touch this whole time. It's kind of like I never left. We're about to be a part of something that is going to be special. When you get that something special, you want to try and keep it going. We've got it up here, and we're going to take it to a whole new level. We're all pumped up."
But the bad times also fuel Johnson. The Wild Card loss at home to a San Diego team that drilled the heavily-favored Bengals still galls him.
"I saw a picture of me after the Chargers game sitting on the sidelines and I was thinking, that's not the way I want my Bengals career to go out," Johnson said. "I'm not going to go out like that. I get an opportunity not to go out like that. I'm excited about that. It's a blessing."