Posted: 6:15 a.m.
Not Tiki, Tomlinson or Alexander, and those 1,036 attempts whispered in his ear this offseason.
"A lot of yards, a lot of touchdowns, a lot of carries," Johnson says. "I try to work on one thing every year to improve on. Last year it was my weight. This year it's my legs. Just trying to make them a little bit stronger."
Isn't that a little like Willie Anderson and Bobbie Williams trying to get bigger, Chad Johnson trying to get louder, Johnathan Joseph trying to get faster? Rudi Johnson's Tour de France legs? They are his calling card.
"I know people look at my legs in awe," he says. "They're still strong. Trust me. But as you get older, there are things you have to do to maintain what you've got."
NFL RUNNING BACKS WITH 1,000 CARRIES SINCE '04 (Elias Sports Bureau):
Rudi Johnson, Bengals, 1,036
Edgerrin James, Colts-Cards, 1,031
LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers, 1,026
Tiki Barber, Giants, 1,006
Johnson turns 28 on Oct. 1 and if you think he's ready to step aside and split the carries with rookie Kenny Irons, well, he's not that old. Johnson takes pride in the title, "Bell Cow." The man who averaged 345 carries the last three seasons without missing a game still expects to get the bulk of the carries as the No. 1 back.
"That's the way it works," Johnson said. "That's the way it's always been. Definitely. Just the same, you still need some help along the way. (Irons) is tough. Tough. Of course. He's from Auburn, isn't he?"
But Johnson's not going to give all the long runs to Irons, either, even though Irons is seen as "The Speed Back" to replace the star-crossed Chris Perry.
It is now 37 games and counting that Johnson hasn't popped a 40-yard run. It last happened on a 52-yarder against the Browns in 2004, a footnote among the 106 points the clubs piled up that day.
His longest run last season was a 22-yard touchdown against the Chiefs in the opener. The club's 3.7 yards per carry average was in the bottom quartile of the league. His 3.8 came after a 4.3 season and 4.2 career.
TOP NFL RUSHERS SINCE '04 (Elias Sports Bureau):
Tiki Barber, Giants, 5,040
LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers, 4,612
Shaun Alexander, Seahawks, 4,472
Rudi Johnson, Bengals, 4,221
"I think it's about me and my receivers getting on the same page blocking downfield and it's been a point of emphasis," Johnson said. "I see that sense of urgency now. If you look back when P-Dub (Peter Warrick) was here, we had a lot of those long runs. The coaches have done a good job about creating that attitude and emphasis. The (receivers) are being passionate about it and they were hurt, too, last year, like a lot of the linemen."
Chad Johnson played with a bruised shoulder most of the season and T.J. Houshmandzadeh played the last several games with four small broken bones in his back, not exactly ailments that make for crushing blocks.
Johnson also saw the injuries affect his line across the board for the first time since '04, which he thinks is the major reason the yards per carry dropped. He starts with the injury to center Rich Braham and the effect it had on quarterback Carson Palmer.
"Having Richie for just one game, I think that was toughest on me and Carson," Johnson said. "They had great communication together, and he got hit a lot of times last year. I take my hat off to him. After he got up every time when he took a hit after that injury he had, I would say, 'That boy is one tough boy.' It shows the kind of person he is.
"Not only Richie, Levi (Jones) was hurt, and Bobbie was hurt and Stacy (Andrews) and Andrew Whitworth were playing for the first time. And all these guys did well. But all that stuff plays a part when you've got musical chairs with your line and everyone's trying to get used to everybody else and you've got guys playing together for the first time."
The amazing thing about the 3.8 is that Johnson was in the greatest shape of his life. He still thinks he's quicker than his first two full seasons, when he set and then broke the franchise's season rushing record. He has gladly given over his body to strength coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver.
"It's to the point where I went on a vacation last weekend (to the Dominican Republic) and I had them put together a little workout even though it was just for a couple of days," Johnson said. "Last year I wanted to keep my weight down and now I've made that a big part of my life. I'm trying to take advantage of everything we've got down here. Chip, Ray, the nutrition, the video, the trainers, the equipment guys. Not in a bad way, but just trying to get better using all those things."
Now with Johnson at a steady, streamlined, and hard 218 pounds, Morton and Oliver look on him with a sense of pride. Although Morton admits he's not sure why Johnson has decided to embrace the legs now, but he's glad he has.
"He's been traditional in his approach, but now he's looking at doing exercises for one and two legs," Morton said. "I think after he had his knee scoped (last offseason), he realized how important the quad muscles are. They're a major contributor to that.
"Not only Rudi, but we've doing more acceleration and deceleration both on one and two legs. That's jumping. How to jump and land. Particularly on one leg. Ground to ground. Over a hurdle. Running inside ladders (on the ground). All of us are doing more of that stuff."
But Morton won't know if they've got a leg up for a few more months.
"The challenge for us and for him is to really apply himself during the season. That's a little dicier," Morton said. "He comes in Monday beat up, and that's the day we put in a lot of our leg work. He's got the right idea and he's applied himself to getting there. Now the challenge is to maintain it during the season."
Johnson, as always, is up for any challenge. Last year it was the weight. Now it's the legs.
And there is always that number of yards. Sitting on 1,458, he'd like to be a three-time record holder.
"1,500 is always a good number to shoot for," he said.