Rudi starts '04 run

5-11-04, 4 p.m. Updated:
5-11-04, 7:05 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Running back Rudi Johnson signed his one-year deal Tuesday that opened the door for him to join the club's first series of on-field coaching sessions next week and closed the door on the Bengals' list of restricted free agents.

Johnson's agent said Tuesday that his client isn't putting a deadline on signing a long-term contract with the Bengals. But Peter Schaffer acknowledged the price is going to go higher the nearer unrestricted free agency approaches.

"He not only wants to be a Bengal for the rest of his career, he wants to be a Bengal for life," Schaffer said Tuesday.

Johnson received the highest restricted tender of $1.8 million in order make his compensation a first- and a third-round draft pick

Schaffer admitted that he's frustrated the Bengals have only talked concepts and haven't presented him with a specific proposal. But he reiterated that Johnson is going to continue to work out and not cause waves.

"Here's a guy that doesn't have to show up until Sept. 1. There have been guys there who have said they'd rather flip burgers than go back there," said Schaffer, alluding to Corey Dillon's comments when he went into restricted free agency. "But he's committed to what the Bengals are doing. He loves the coaches and management, but at some point they have to know his price is just going to go out of the roof once he hits the market."

With the chants of "Rudi, Rudi," ringing in his ears, Johnson, 24, bolted out of his back-up role in his third NFL season and led the Bengals in rushing with 957 yards in place of the injured Dillon. After Dillon tore his groin in the third game of the season last year, Johnson became the first back in Bengals' history to rush for three 150-yard games in the same season with 182 against Houston, 165 against Kansas City, and 174 against San Francisco. Throw in his 101 yards against Seattle and the Bengals are 4-0 when Johnson runs for 100.

The 5-10, 220-pound Johnson's 43 carries against Houston broke Dillon's team record of 39, is two off the NFL record, and tied the mark in regulation.

The Bengals would have the option of designating him a franchise free agent if they can't get a deal before the 2005 season, but neither side would like to do that. In fact, both sides aren't in an easy spot. For Johnson, he has to believe he's going to have to have a better season than last, particularly now that he's the unquestioned starter. But what if he doesn't?

As for the Bengals, do they drop another mega contract on Johnson in the wake of last year's franchise deals to Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson on a guy who has just one season under his belt and just five starts and four 100-yard games? But the Bengals truly admire Rudi Johnson's work ethic, attitude and hard-charging running style.

It looks to be a bit of a game of chicken. What makes it tougher is that Johnson is a tough guy to make any kind of economic comparison to anyone else in the league because he's had just one season as a regular.

He finished just ahead of Jerome Bettis (811 yards) and just behind Eddie George (1,031 yards) in AFC rushing. But Bettis, who just re-did a deal to get $900,000 per year, is a 10,000-yard career rusher. George, who has a base salary of $4.25 million, has been to the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl.

One deal that did get done this season involved one of Johnson's 2001 classmates. The 49ers' Kevan Barlow, picked a round ahead of Johnson in the third in the '01 draft, went for 1,024 yards on 201 carries for a 5.1-yard per carry average, and then received what amounted to a $8 million signing bonus.

But because the Niners are in a salary cap squeeze, $6.5 million of it is in an option bonus for next year. This year, he got $1.5 million to sign a five-year deal.

But Barlow has virtually twice as many career yards as Johnson with 2,211, and nearly twice as many career carries (461-232).

Schaffer reiterated he won't put a hard date on a long-term deal.

"I don't like artificial deadlines," Schaffer said. "But obviously, as each day goes by, the price is changing. What we think might have been a good deal in February won't necessarily be one in September."

Last month, the Bengals also reached one-year deals for the minimum $628,000 tender with wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and offensive Victor lineman Victor Leyva. Three of the restricteds, kicker Shayne Graham (five years), safety Kevin Kaesviharn (three years) and tight end Tony Stewart ( two years) received longer deals. The club opted to make linebacker Riall Johnson an unrestricted free agent and he signed with Arizona.

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