Posted: 7 a.m.
Larry Johnson, eminent football historian, is going big picture on this one. The man who once outfitted his car's seat covers with throwback jerseys is ignoring the juicier footnotes of Sunday's matchup with the Chiefs.
It is, of course, the first time Johnson and the Chiefs have met since Kansas City cut him last month in a hail of controversy centered on his Twitter remarks that questioned head coach Todd Haley's coaching resumé as well as gay slurs.
"I'd have to say nothing," Johnson said Wednesday of his emotions going against a team for whom he holds virtually all the single-season rushing records. "I might end up with 30 carries, I might get four. Whatever happens happens. It will be nice to see the guys that I played with and went through training camp with and the young guys I tried to mentor a little bit. It will be nice to try to see them and talk to them Sunday.
"It's just another chance to become … our division champions. That's most important. I haven't got to wear those caps and T-shirts since, I think, my rookie year ('03). It would be fun to do it at home, in front of the fans. Hopefully we can celebrate a win."
But for a historian, he's not real good with current events.
"I didn't know Cincinnati was in a run for the playoffs," he said. "It happened to work out when I came here I didn't know what their record was. I was just looking for an opportunity wherever. It just happened that Cincinnati was a great fit for me."
There is a bit of disagreement between Haley and Johnson on whether they had some closure, but neither are trying to turn Sunday's game into WWF.
"No," said Johnson when asked if he and Haley talked since. "He's doing what he needs to do, and he's doing a good job of trying to get those guys in order and moving them into the direction where they need to be."
On his conference call with the Cincinnati media Wednesday, Haley responded in the true Bill Belichick-Scott Pioli model and downplayed it down to the punctuation. It is Pioli, co-architect of the league's most successful franchise of the decade in New England, who now runs the Chiefs and hired Haley away from Arizona.
"I think a lot of Larry as a player … I enjoyed getting to know him," Haley said. "I believe Larry was all in here, and really trying to be part of us turning it around and becoming a winning team. It's just one of those things that didn't work out. But I've watched all the Cincinnati tape, and it looks like the opportunity that Larry gets he's running hard and making plays. The one opportunity he got to start, he got the job done. Knowing Larry, I'd expect Larry's best come Sunday, which would be any Sunday, but I know this having been his team for a long time, he'll be up for this game. So in turn, we've got to understand that whoever's running the ball, whether it's Cedric (Benson) or Larry, we're going to get their best, and we're going to have to be at our best."
Johnson hasn't carried the ball 10 times since he rushed for 107 yards last month against the Browns in place of the injured Benson and he doesn't seem to mind. He knows the role. That's not to say it's easy, but he knows it. After he signed with the Bengals back on Nov. 16, he said it would be like Christmas playing Kansas City.
"That was before Cedric came back. If I was going to be the guy like I was against Cleveland, then yeah, I'd be a little bit more pumped for this one," Johnson said. "But this, right now, what's going on with this team is bigger than me vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. It's basically us trying to put ourselves in a great position to get to the playoffs and hopefully get to the Super Bowl.
"It's difficult (adjusting to a backup role). It would be a different situation if I were like a first-round draft pick and Cedric was here and I was thinking coming out of college, 'I should be the man.' It's not that situation. I'm just trying to get my career back on track and trying to demonstrate I'm more a team, locker-room guy. I can be a little bit more than what people thought I wasn't. It's definitely a good situation to sit back and learn from another organization and see how they do things."
Johnson is the third-leading rusher in Chiefs history and so there is some curiosity here.
"It will be kind of like me practicing against my friends," Johnson said. "A lot of those guys I haven't seen in six or seven weeks. It will be great to get out there and play for real. When we were in camp, we did a couple of live goal-lines and stuff like that. It will just be great to bang around against those guys once again and get our shared memories. It will be fun for me to see those guys again."
The tradeoff here is simple. Johnson gets to prove that he is still worthy in the locker room and on the field to get a more significant role next year in free agency in exchange for giving the Bengals big back insurance in the playoff crucible of cold weather and conservative approach. He doubts he'll be back here, but he appreciates the opportunity and thinks he's proven it.
"I hope so," he said. "A lot of things change in the league. You never know who wants a certain player and who wants what at that certain time. Hopefully something will happen in the next four, five months from now."
As the historian, he knows it is sweeter revenge wearing a division cap and he knows the time is now and not next week.
"Definitely, because next week we play New York, and after that you never know what will happen," he said. "You know other teams like Baltimore and the Steelers and teams like that are on the bubble. We don't want to put ourselves in that situation, so we definitely want to close out that chapter of the whole wild-card saga, so to speak, with a win this week, then see where the cards fall after that."