BY GEOFF HOBSON
For now, all is right with Rudi Johnson's world.
There is the Hawaiian breeze, the title of Pro Bowler, a spot with mentor Jerome Bettis in the AFC backfield, and Sunday's game against the NFC at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
"Any time you've got a football game to play, it's a good thing," said Johnson, who admitted again it could be his last game in quite some time.
For now, Johnson's contract problems are as far away as Honolulu. Before Thursday morning's practice, Johnson posed for pictures with his AFC mates and reiterated that he wouldn't play in 2005 if the Bengals decide to tag him with the one-year designations of franchise or transition in free agency that begins March 2.
That doesn't seem to inhibit the Bengals. Head coach Marvin Lewis has said all along the tags are an option.
Johnson understands he's getting heat from fans that can't fathom why he would spurn the one-year franchise tag of $6.3 million. But he says he wants a long-term commitment and he wants it to be in Cincinnati.
"I hope they can talk and get it done," said Johnson, who has said there is a long way to go from where the Bengals stood five weeks ago in a sitdown at Paul Brown Stadium with agent Peter Schaffer. But he has also said he thinks a long-term deal can get done.
All indications are the Bengals are waiting to hear back from Schaffer on the offer they gave him last month. And all indications are they want him back enough to consider giving him $6.3 million for one year, which is the average salary of the top five paid running backs in the NFL.
It's a number that would constrict the Bengals on the free-agent market. But - at least for now - it appears they feel like their own players like Johnson are valuable enough to keep and make them their major offseason signings. After a season that Johnson set the club's single-season rushing record, the Bengals love his durability when it comes to practices and games and his positive attitude in the locker room that they feel can survive contract negotiations.
By the time they tender their restricted free agents ($2-3 million), sign their draft picks ($3 million), absorb last season's incentives ($1 million) and possibly franchise Johnson ($6.3 million), that may leave the Bengals just enough to re-sign center Rich Braham and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
The timetable on Johnson is on warp speed. If the Bengals tag him by the Feb. 22 deadline, they only have until March 16 to get a long-term deal done. If not, they can't talk again until July 15.
Living in the moment
But Johnson isn't thinking about such things at the moment. There is a game to play, and for a while he thought it was going to be like the old days with former backfield mate Corey Dillon. But Dillon got hurt in the final minutes of last Sunday's Super Bowl victory and his Pro Bowl spot went to Bettis.
Bettis, who could have easily succeeded Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna as the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, has been a mentor to Johnson ever since the Bengals running back came into the NFL in 2001. They share the same agent in Schaffer as well as the same nuts-and-bolts running style even though Bettis has about 30 pounds on Johnson.
"I would say it's the same style," Johnson said. "The first thing we're going to do is take it up inside when we get the chance and get it up field. He's given me advice on playing certain defenses and how he had success against them."
But he admires Bettis for so much more.
"A class act," Johnson said. "Just the way he handles himself. He always runs hard, plays hard, plays hurt. He's the face of his team. When you say, 'Pittsburgh Steelers,' you automatically think 'Smash-mouth football.' You automatically think of Jerome."
Johnson would like to be linked to the Bengals in the same way. It is far from the point before the 2000 Pro Bowl, when Dillon openly wondered if he had to wear the Bengals helmet in the game.
Johnson continues to say he wants the long-term deal with the Bengals. But he's just not sure when he'll play football again.
"I'm just going to enjoy Sunday," Johnson said.