Updated: 11-27-08, 3:55 p.m.
The Bengals have the lowest-ranked offense in football in large part because they are next-to-last in running the ball. And a large reason for that appeared Wednesday in the small type of transactions:
"NFL: Cincinnati - Released FB Jeremi Johnson."
"He kind of ate his way out of here," observed offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski after Wednesday's practice.
And Johnson's absence as a lead blocker nibbled away at Bratkowski's scheme all year.
After Johnson hurt his knee the week before the opener and was lost for the season, the Bengals replaced him with Daniel Coats, a second-year free-agent tight end playing fullback for the first time in his life. That was because they were relying on Johnson to get ready after again undergoing a massive weight loss that took him out of training camp. He had done it before and also had played well enough to convince the Bengals to make him the highest-paid fullback in football.
"When you're a base two-back running team, it makes you undergo adjustments, and obviously the adjustments have not been good enough," Bratkowski said. "We haven't had the answer."
The other AFC North teams, led by former Bengal Lorenzo Neal leading the Ravens in here Sunday, have physical presences in the backfield. Much like Johnson gave the Bengals
when he didn't miss a game his first five seasons in the NFL and Rudi Johnson followed him for franchise-bests 1,454 and 1,458 rushing yards in 2004 and 2005, respectively, as well as a 1,309-yard year in '06.
"He was a good fullback for us and he made some big plays in the pass game," Bratkowski said. "But we got to the point where we couldn't count on him. We had a lot of holes to fix, and in the last two drafts we felt like we had a good fullback here. So you didn't want to spend high draft choices on a fullback."
The weight problems took a toll. Exhibit A is the knee injury, which came at the end of a fierce four-month battle to shear off weight that had climbed to near the 300-pound mark. The injury came so late in the roster cutdowns that the Bengals had to turn to Coats.
"(Johnson) didn't end up coming around for us," Bratkowski said. "You carry the extra weight, you open yourself to injury.
"We had Daniel all through the spring working there with Jeremi trying to lose weight to get ready for the season. That's a position that's just not the same until you get pads on in training camp, and we ended with Daniel there for the whole year making the transition and it's not an easy thing to do."
The Bengals like Coats as a guy and as a willing blocker, but they may spend the offseason looking at the powerful argument of having a true fullback. Also Wednesday, they cut fullback Reagan Maui'a with an injury settlement. A second-year pro, Maui'a played in two games this season with no stats. He had been on IR since injuring his hamstring in practice last month.
The Bengals figure to take a salary cap hit of about $2 million with the Johnson release, but it falls into the '09 cap.