Rudi resolved

3-19-04, 6:20 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Now for something completely different.

Here's a Bengals running back planning to attend some off-season workouts and looking to take himself and Cincinnati "to the next level," even though he hasn't signed a contract yet for 2004.

"Just chilling. Just chilling," said Rudi Johnson Thursday, entrenched in his native Virginia unaware of the fallout surrounding Corey Dillon's explosive comments.

Even though he's a restricted free agent, Johnson said he'll probably be at Paul Brown Stadium for some workouts later in the spring. He won't be here next week when they start because his grade-school daughter is on spring break and they plan to travel.

"I'm just trying to get better. I'm eating a lot better," Johnson said. "Chicken and fish. Grilled and baked. I'm an Eastern Shore guy from Virginia. You know the fish is real here. Any kind of fish. Salmon. Crab cakes."

This is as controversial as Johnson is going to get.

After calling his right tackle "a bum," Dillon said Wednesday night he wouldn't come back to the Bengals and share carries with Johnson like he did last year, "because Rudi ain't Corey Dillon."

Dillon wanted to clarify those comments later, saying he has nothing against Johnson and only meant they are different backs.

Johnson seemed to understand that when he was told of the comments.

"Corey's right," Johnson said. "Rudi ain't Corey Dillon. And Corey Dillon ain't Rudi. That's just the way it is. I wish the guy the best. I hope he gets to where he wants to go. We're ready to go on our way whether he's with us or not."

Both Johnson and Anderson refused to be drawn into it, and indicated they could play with Dillon again. On Wednesday night, shortly after Dillon went national TV on Fox, Anderson wished it would go away because, "we don't need this. No other team in the league has this," and he refused to speculate if he thought Dillon had violated the loyalty clause in his signing bonus by publicly criticizing him.

For his part, Johnson enjoyed the fact that Dillon appeared on the show in a Bo Jackson Raiders' jersey.

"I think I sold that to him," said Johnson, who finished second behind Jackson for Auburn's single-season rushing record.

One of the reasons Dillon is so peeved is that he never regained his No. 1 role from Johnson even after his injured groin healed last year. But with Dillon struggling to stay in games and Johnson riding the exercise bike on the sidelines even during his club-record 43 carries, they kept the hot back in the mix as Johnson became the first Cincinnati runner to have three 150-yard games in the same season.

"I can get better. I know I can get better," said Johnson, who finished 43 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season. "I can't wait to get the season going again. It's all about taking it to the next level individually and as a team. You know what that is."

He agreed that the next level is something like a Super Bowl and 1,400-1,500-yard Pro Bowl season. He's also heard the Bengals have a new starting quarterback in Carson Palmer.

"Tell him I've got his back," Johnson said. "Whatever happens, I've got his back, and he's got to know he's got 10 other guys out there with him who got his back."

Johnson is appreciative of the raise he received earlier this month, when the Bengals tendered him $1.8 million for this year, about six times what he made last year to secure the club a first- and third-round pick if someone signed him and they didn't match the offer. He could be making noises about a contract extension, but he's not, and it sounds like he'll be here for at least some of the camps. Last year, he said one of the reasons the running game clicked is because of the time spent developing a rhythm in practice.

"Yeah, some games we ran it well and in other games we didn't," Johnson agreed. "We have to get that consistency going again with the line and everyone else. We've got a lot to build on that."

Johnson wanted an update. What about Warren Sapp? He had heard the Bengals had signed two new defensive starters. He's puzzled why if Dillon wants to leave, another team hasn't taken him yet.

"I can't understand that," Johnson said. "They better step up because if a team is looking for a great back, there he is. He can do a lot of damage, I know that, and you can see that he can still play."

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