Updated: 2-9-07, 6:30 a.m.
JohnsonChad Johnson says you won't believe it when you watch him defend his "Best Hands" title during halftime of Saturday's 6 p.m. telecast of the Pro Bowl on CBS.
Johnson didn't drop a ball while running an estimated 80 yards in less than 16 seconds and getting rapid-fire throws from six different quarterbacks "and I didn't stop talking to those guys the whole time," he said. "I was calling them by name and yelling at them to put it right there. Ask Carson (Palmer). I got some pretty good throws."
Palmer couldn't be reached for comment Thursday after he got edged by the Cowboys' Tony Romo for first place in the quarterbacks challenge during the skill festivities in Hawaii, but a Bengals Pro Bowl quarterback from the past confirmed the goings on.
"Oh yeah. He's nuts, he's out of his mind," said Boomer Esiason after serving as one of the quarterbacks on the Chad gauntlet. "But the guy is great. It was fun. There's not a mean bone in Chad Johnson's body."
In fact, there may be no bone in Johnson's body as he Gumbies his way to a fourth straight Pro Bowl. Last year he beat the field against a machine. This year he grabbed throws from Palmer, Esiason, Hall of Famer Warren Moon and the trio of NFC quarterbacks Romo, Drew Brees of the Saints, and Marc Bulger of the Rams.
And maybe the best part of all, Johnson fended off former JUCO teammate Steve Smith of the Panthers on the final run of the event.
"They saved the best for last," Johnson said in his duel with one of the men he also beat this season to win the NFL receiving yards title. "Steve was leading it. Isn't it amazing? We've been competing in everything since 1997. They didn't tell us it wasn't going to be the machine, but it was like it was at the (scouting) combine where you run down the line. Hey, it's what I do."
Johnson and Smith headed a field that included receivers Anquan Boldin of the Cardinals, Donald Driver of the Packers, Andre Johnson of the Texans, and Roy Williams of the Lions, as well as tight end Antonio Gates of the Chargers.
Esiason has now unofficially thrown balls to the three top Bengals receivers of all time in Carl Pickens, Johnson and Isaac Curtis, but he was raving about everybody.
"These guys are amazing," said Esiason, working the game for CBS. "You wouldn't believe how big Andre Johnson and Roy Williams are. It's frightening. They're like Kellen Winslow (Sr.) moving and catching the ball. But Chad's the fastest. He and Steve Smith. The quickest. I don't think anyone dropped a ball. It was like an Olympic sprint. It came down to fractions of seconds. Carson gave him a better ball than I did."
Esiason also participated in a Legends touch football game and after being in a huddle with new Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin he told him, "I now have more respect for Troy Aikman. He had to be the quarterback and a psychotherapist."
Esiason is enjoying Johnson and thinks he's got him figured out, calling him more Muhammad Ali than Terrell Owens.
"I can see where he would inflame his opponents but, hey, he likes to put the target on himself," Esiason said. "There are times he steps over the line and he knows when he steps over the line, but the guy is fun to be around."
If it seems like there are times the Bengals don't exactly get embraced by the powers that be in the league, Johnson may serve as a good liaison to New York.
"The people from the NFL office are telling me how they appreciate what I've done to make it fun," Johnson said. "That's pretty good."
Esiason got a chance to see Palmer in the "On The Mark" competition among the quarterbacks and confirmed Palmer looked in midseason form.
"Carson was a machine," he said.
All the skill events will be seen on NFL Network Saturday after the Pro Bowl at 10:30 p.m.
SmithSMITH TAG? Don't be surprised if the Bengals decide to franchise defensive end Justin Smith by the Feb. 22 deadline even though it would cost them $8.6 million this year.
His agent won't be.
"They've said they like him and that they want to keep him. No, it wouldn't surprise me," Jim Steiner said Thursday.
Smith, one of only four Bengals with at least 40 career sacks (41.5), is coming off his fifth straight season in which he led the defensive line in tackles and finished as one of the team's top two sackers. His presence would no doubt solidify the Bengals as a 4-3 defense.
Steiner and partner Ben Dogra, formerly the big hitters for SFX Sports, have recently joined forces with former IMG heavyweights Tom Condon and Ken Kremer to form the football division of CAA. The only game Smith has missed in his career was because his rookie holdout extended into the regular-season's first weekend, but Steiner has indicated that while there hasn't been much dialogue the club has made it known it would like to keep the man it took with the fourth pick in the 2001 draft with a long-term contract.
If the Bengals make Smith, 27, their franchise player, they would need to tender him a one-year deal for $8.6 million, the average of the top five paid ends in the NFL. That would virtually take Smith off the free-agent market that opens March 2 because compensation is two first-round draft picks.
Steiner said Smith won't fight the tag and the Bengals' incentive to get a long-term deal done before July 16 is that it would take the cap hit far below $8.6 million. If no deal is done before July 16, the Bengals are frozen at $8.6 million for the season because they can't do an extension until after the season.
"We have no choice; the tag is part of the system," Steiner said. "But Justin wants to be there and they want him there so if they did tag him there would seem to be plenty of time to get a long-term deal that I would imagine both sides would prefer."
Tagging Smith would probably take the Bengals out of the hunt early in free agency for one of the big names.