12-18-03, 7:15 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
You have to go to Peter Schaffer because Rudi Johnson keeps giving you the same answer.
Q: Have you gone to the coaches and asked for the ball more?
RJ: Nah. I just want to get better and help us win games.
What does 1,000 yards mean to you?
It would mean a lot to me, and my offensive line and my teammates. . .but I want to win more than anything.
Q: A lot of guys in this day and age would be complaining publicly about wanting the ball more.
RJ: Right now, I just want to get to the playoffs. If we do that, everything will take care of itself.
Q: If you re-sign with the Bengals, would you only do it as the feature back?
RJ (Wave of hand): That's for the coaches to decide. That's for them to decide.
If that isn't refreshing, of course it is. Johnson is coming off a 174-yard day against San Francisco, the first time a Bengal running back has ever had three 150-yard days in the same season. He can't even get a starting assignment or a guarantee he'll get more carries. Here's a guy who is 125 yards shy of 1,000 and all the other backs in the AFC who have at least 1,000 yards have carried the ball at least 70 more times.
But while there is all this ESPN fuss even in their own locker room about wide receiver Chad Johnson's celebrations, guarantees, and fines, Rudi Johnson remains the anti-hero in the information age.
"We win, and go to the playoffs, everything will take care of itself."
"Rudi has always been like that," says Schaffer, Johnson's Denver-based agent. "The guy is as humble as they come. His mother raised him like that. And it's something we've sat down and talked about."
It's an easy subject for Schaffer to discuss. He also represents Barry Sanders, Eddie George, and Jerome Bettis. If anyone knows humble running backs, it's Schaffer.
"We've talked about it a lot," Schaffer says. "How to be famous without
being cocky. He's a lot like Barry. He doesn't really understand why the media wants to talk about him all the time. We've talked about giving the ball to the referee after a touchdown. He's told me, 'Peter, that's what I'm paid to do. That's why they pay me.'"
, Which is as good a time as any to talk about his contract situation. He's got 875 yards on 190 carries. LaDainian Tomlinson of San Diego has 1,311 yards on 260 carries and has the fewest attempts of any 1,000-yard rusher in the AFC. Give Johnson those 70 carries with his 4.6-yard per carry average, and he's got 1,197. Give him the 338 carries of NFL leader Jamal Lewis, and it's 1,556, a Bengals' single-season record.
That's pretty good for about $400,000, his salary this season.
But it will be close to $2 million next year. That's how much the Bengals have to offer him for one year to try and deter other teams from signing him to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent. That would bring first-round compensation. It would also mean that it gets harder and harder to keep two high-paid running backs such as Johnson and Corey Dillon.
Everyone assumes with each yard Johnson gains that the Bengals are going to trade Dillon, a topic that was fueled by his own comments two months ago. Given that is a wash when it comes to the salary cap, and they are going to have to sit tight with huge numbers on quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Carson Palmer, that possibility is there, but it's also one that has not been discussed then or now among club officials.
Which gets you back to Schaffer, and now he starts sounding like his client.
"Rudi is just enjoying this year," Schaffer said. "After he goes to the playoffs, then maybe he thinks about it. Right now he just loves playing for this team. He's enjoying it. He's loving the fans."
Johnson might not talk much to the media, but he talks to Schaffer. They talk about the crowd. They talk about the "Rudi, Rudi," chants.
"He loves that," Schaffer says. "It pumps him up because it pumps up the crowd. He loves to hear the crowd get into it."
Johnson's closest friend on the team is running back Brandon Bennett, and he enjoys sitting back at his own locker and listening to Johnson's Old School answers.
"I think that's because he has so much respect for Corey," Bennett said. "He knows what Corey has accomplished and how hard that is and what that means. He's not going to sound off and complain. He's not that kind of guy. He wants to win. He's a football player. Football players want to win and that's pretty much it."
One of head coach Marvin Lewis' great coaching qualities is his ability to reach out to all people in the game. Not long after Sunday's game, Lewis called Schaffer to assure him that another client, cornerback Jeff Burris, is going to be fine when he gets healthy and his legs back under him. They also talked about Johnson and how well he is doing. When the contract comes up, these guys won't be strangers.
"It's funny," Schaffer says. "I was talking to Rudi when Marvin called. I said, 'The post-game interviews must be over.' Rudi keeps telling me, 'Whatever Marvin wants me to do. If he wants me to carry it 10 times a day, great. If he wants me to carry it 30 times a great. Whatever we have to do to win."
At the moment, it looks like winning is tied to giving the ball to Johnson, the information age's anti-hero.