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Johnson Is Flip Side of Dillon

Bengal running back wins over fans and teammates with his low-key approach

November 16, 2003|From Associated Press

CINCINNATI — Rudi Johnson prefers the old-fashioned way of celebrating a touchdown: Flip the ball toward the nearest official and head for the bench.

No dancing. No posing. No grandstanding.

"That's not me," the Cincinnati Bengals running back said quietly, between bites of a peanut butter sandwich. "I just celebrate with my teammates."

In the best moment of his three-year career, Johnson stayed true to himself. He refused to call attention his way as he carried a club-record 43 times last Sunday in a 34-27 victory over Houston.

He tied Butch Woolfolk and James Wilder for second-most carries in league history, two behind Jamie Morris' record. And, he did it with ease -- 17 carries in the fourth quarter alone.

"He was going strong," running back Brandon Bennett marveled. "He wasn't even breathing that hard."

As the home crowd chanted his first name, Johnson emerged as one of the NFL's up-and-coming backs. The low-profile runner also gave his team a high-profile issue.

What do they do when disgruntled Corey Dillon is ready to play?

"I wish people would get off Corey and leave him alone," Coach Marvin Lewis said emphatically.

Sorry, coach, the issue is going to stay front-and-center well into the offseason.

During the team's 12-year run as the NFL's worst, Dillon has been its only draw. The stiff-arming runner with a nasty attitude could be counted to get his 1,000 yards and flirt with the record book each year.

And, the Bengals could be counted on to lose.

A groin injury in the third game of the season has limited Dillon to 208 yards, giving his unheralded backup a chance to shine. Johnson has topped 100 yards in two of the last three games, including his 182-yard effort against the Texans.

It's become clear the Bengals can win without Dillon, who spouted off last month, saying he felt unappreciated and wants out of Cincinnati. Lewis doesn't put up with me-first players, so Dillon probably wrote himself out of the Bengals' long-range plans with his complaints.

The issue: What do they do with him in the meantime?

Lewis thinks the Bengals (4-5) could use Dillon if they're making an unexpected push for the playoffs in December. They haven't had a winning record since 1990.

"I want to get Corey back healthy as quick as we can," Lewis said. "That's what I'm anxious and encouraged about, and I know he is."

Lewis' challenge will be keeping Dillon in the right frame of mind. The running back can be prickly and uncooperative -- he was the only player who skipped the first minicamp under Lewis and showed up late for training camp.

Lewis granted him a favor and allowed him to skip Sunday's game because he was inactive. The Bengals' other inactive players were on the sideline.

"There's no double standard," Lewis said. "Sometimes guys ask for certain leeway, and I have to consider it. I've got to be able to balance our football team and what is best for the player.

"Sometimes I can't just be (tough) and say this is the way it is, because I lose them. And it's important that I don't lose them."

Johnson's quiet emergence has made fans forget about Dillon for now. The "Rudi! Rudi!" chant has become a mainstay at home games.

"I've heard that ever since I was in high school, all through college and continuing here," Johnson said. "It's just a good way of knowing that I'm getting the job done and keeping the fans in it."

His teammates also enjoy his quiet way, a sharp contrast with Dillon. "He's pretty quiet, but when you get to know him, he's a character," quarterback Jon Kitna said.

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