Posted: 6:15 a.m.
JohnsonGEORGETOWN, Ky. - Kenny Irons shot through training camp like some kind of comet. Brief and bright, he was here just long enough to chart a return and leave some to wonder, but now the meteor shower is done and the rock is still here.
After Sunday's practice the man asked Rudi Johnson to name the toughest running back in the NFL.
"You're looking at him; hands down," said Johnson, and after three seasons in which no one in the NFL has carried the ball more, who can dispute him?
Irons is supposed to be the speed guy, the guy who is going to give the Bengals the 40-yard run from scrimmage they haven't had in 37 straight games. Or since Johnson popped a 52-yarder in the PointsFest against Cleveland in 2004. He was also supposed to give Johnson a breather now and then.
But the now is that Irons is out for the year with an ACL injury in his left knee, so the Bengals are back where they always seem to be: Looking for 350 or so carries from "Rudi, Rudi, Rudi."
"I'll take as many as they give me," Johnson said. "I'll take them all."
He already has.
Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson has coached here a quarter of a century and coached the big backs (Harold Green), the scat backs (James Brooks), and the Hall of Famers (Corey Dillon). But it is Johnson that has three of the four biggest seasons in club history when it comes to carries. His 361 attempts from 2004 leads, followed by last season's 341 and Anderson doesn't blink when he says, "He's one of the toughest I've ever coached; dependable, durable, and consistent."
Johnson shrugs at this knock-on-wood durability. Since the Corey Dillon trade before the 2004 season, Johnson hasn't missed a snap as the Bengals bell cow back.
"That's the mentality you have to have as a runner. You know that's what you're going through in the offseason," Johnson said. "You've got to get yourself mentally and physically prepared. I'm built for that. That's what I train for. So whenever my number is called I'm ready."
Sunday's heat was fourth-quarter heat, stifling and close. Johnson's kind of weather. He always says, "You practice in the heat so you can play in the cold." As assistant strength coach Ray "Rock" Oliver walked by, Johnson pointed and said, "My man Ray has done a lot for me. A lot (of work) with the quads. My feet. Focusing a lot on quickness."
Oliver and head strength coach Chip Morton have been big factors in retooling Johnson's body from the 235-pound softie the Bengals drafted in 2001. He set the club record with 43 carries against Houston back in 2003 weighing 218 pounds; now the working number is 212.
With no clear-cut No. 2 backup, wouldn't it be nice to well, maybe weigh a little more?
"I play big," he said. "I know my body. It's the same. No need to change."
There was so much talk about Irons this spring, and then when the kid looked so good in the scrimmage Johnson was always where he seems to be in an offense gifted with Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Taken for granted.
Write in his 350 carries, 1,400 yards, 12 TDs, and ho-hum, next ...
"That's a good thing," Johnson said. "As long as I'm consistent. Just as good as the year before, or even better."
He insists he wasn't irked that the Bengals took Irons in the second round, and that he felt it was a move that reflected their uncertainty with injury-prone Chris Perry rather than any unhappiness with his subpar 3.8-yard per carry average that was so unlike his 4.2 career average coming in.
While insisting there has to be a guy that gets the majority of carries, he welcomes a change-of-pace back, but ...
"At the same time, we have to move on," he said. "Baltimore sure doesn't care. Cleveland doesn't care. Pittsburgh doesn't care."
And while criticism mounted about the failure to pop a big run (none would be bigger than the 22-yard touchdown run way back in the opener) , Johnson has always calmly suggested it's an 11-man thing.
(Long before the coaches started to get on the receivers publicly about downfield blocking, Johnson reminded people how well Peter Warrick blocked.)
On Sunday, he lit up recalling the first play from last Thursday's preseason opener, a 20-yard run around left end. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth erased a guy on a blockdown. Fullback Chris Manderino sealed the linebacker. And the first person he saw after the series turned out to be wide receiver Chad Johnson asking, "Did you see me get him on the edge?"
"We conversated right after that play," Rudi said. "And we said we have to have that all year. He understands it. T.J. understands it. Chris Henry understands it. All the receivers understand it ... and they're taking pride in that."
When it comes to pride, there's no question he wants the ball. Only Johnson (1,039), Edgerrin James (1,031), LaDainian Tomlinson (1,026), and Tiki Barber (1,006) have carried more than 1,000 times in the last three years. And he's been known to gripe if the Bengals lose and he didn't think he touched the ball enough.
But he doesn't suck the life out of a locker room like Corey Dillon could in one of his Death-Eater moods.
Johnson, literally, just gets back on the bike. He made the stationery bike a household item in Bengaldom when he rolled it out to the sidelines for his second NFL start against Seattle in 2003 and while on his way to a monster fourth quarter and his first career 100-yard game, he wheeled it between series.
"I'm keeping the muscles loose. I'm keeping my mind in the game," Johnson said. "I look at the scoreboard, I look at the time. I keep it focused."
The carries and yards are spinning by. With 177 more yards he'll become the club's third all-time rusher behind Dillon and Brooks. With 132 carries, only Dillon will have more.
Sunday he was back on the bike in the fourth-quarter heat on the sidelines.
"I invented the bike," he always says.
It looks like it could be gearing up for another 350-carry Tour.
"Whatever they give me," he said. "I'll take it."