SAN DIEGO - In the early days of the West Coast offense, long before Giovani Bernard and James Brooks, Essex "The Express," Johnson becomes the Bengals' first running back to catch 100 yards when his two touchdown grabs amass 116 yards during today's 20-13 victory over the Chargers. But after the 5-9, 200-pounder chalks up his second straight 100-yard rushing game with 121 yards on 21 carries, they are comparing him to O.J. Simpson, the consensus choice as the NFL's top back. Except for Bengals defensive tackle Mike Reid. "He's the best. The very best," Reid says. "Larry Brown can do nothing that Essex can't do. And I don't think O.J. is as fast as Essex." Chargers' future Hall-of-Fame defensive end Deacon Jones won't go that far, but he's suitably impressed. "He's the second best runner in football," Jones says. "I'd say O.J. is the best, but he's a tough kid. We really layed some leather to him, but he kept on plugging."
Johnson and quarterback Ken Anderson show the deadly versatility of the West Coast on the West Coast and how matchups can kill. Anderson notes how the linebackers are loading up to stop Johnson on the sweep, so they loosen them up on third-and-eight from the Bengals 22. They send wide receiver Chip Myers in motion to clear out the left side and tight end Bob Trumpy up the middle to tie up the middle backer. That leaves Johnson one-on-one with linebacker Rick Redman and it's no contest. Anderson hits him in stride at the 35 and Johnson uses his blistering speed for a 78-yard TD. "He turned a simple play into a terrific gainer. He can do that kind of thing," Anderson says. Johnson keeps that in mind later in the game from the Chargers 38 when Anderson calls "full back close," and sends Boobie Clark down the middle. But as they break the huddle, Johnson tells him to take a look because "that guy can't keep up with me." Anderson does more than look when Johnson races past Redman. He drills it to him down the middle and when Johnson makes safety Joe Beauchamp miss, the Bengals are on their way to 2-1 and the playoffs after an Opening Day loss in Denver.
It's also their last game against the great Johnny Unitas, the man that beat them with two long balls in their only post-season game at the end of 1970 against the Colts. Unitas is already entrenched in pro football lore, but he makes more history today when he passes 40,000 yards on his first completion. But there is a sense of sadness on the other side of the ball as they watch the aging legend fight his body limping to the center. The Bengals sack him six times when their right side overpowers the Chargers with tackle Ron Carpenter getting three sacks and end Sherman White two. And they split the other one. "His nose was busted up pretty good," says Bengals middle linebacker Bill Bergey. "I wanted them to take him out. I'd hope they'd bring in that young quarterback because I knew we were going to get him." One of the young Chargers quarterbacks? Dan Fouts. But his role against the Bengals will have to wait.