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Johnson has taken the florid displays of flanker ego even further, brashly predicting victories, � la his idol Muhammad Ali, and once sending Pepto Bismol to an opposing secondary before a game. He came to national attention in 2003, the first of three Pro Bowl seasons, when he began accruing NFL fines seemingly with every game. He already had been fined twice for touchdown celebrations when, in December of that year, he scored in a 41--38 win over the 49ers, then reached behind a snowbank and pulled out a poster that read dear nfl, please don't fine me again!!!!! The league hit him up for $10,000. Since then he has transformed the touchdown celebration into a kind of performance art. The greatest hits include a stylized Irish dance after a touchdown against the Bears, bending to one knee and mock-proposing to a Bengals cheerleader, and, after catching a touchdown pass against the Jaguars last October, dropping down and performing CPR on the ball. "He's always running these ideas by me," says fellow Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "Sometimes I veto them, but he doesn't listen to me." The NFL has done its part to curtail the most extreme gestures, passing a rule before this season prohibiting the use of "foreign objects" or the football itself in touchdown celebrations.
But Johnson has more than just touchdowns to celebrate. Since 2002 he has averaged 88 catches and 1,307 receiving yards and has become, along with quarterback Carson Palmer, the public face of a resurgent Bengals team. Johnson's numbers are down a bit this year (30 catches for 373 yards and only one TD), in part because coach Marvin Lewis is content to let him draw double teams that set up his playmaking partner Houshmandzadeh. Not that Johnson can't deliver the big play--his diving 32-yard catch on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter on Sunday set up the winning touchdown in Cincinnati's 17--14 victory over the Carolina Panthers. "He has realized there is more to being a receiver than catching the football," says Lewis. "You have to do the blocking, you have to run after the catch, and I think he's worked hard to improve and get better at those things."
Still, Johnson has made his reputation with fans by catching big passes and publicly calling out opponents. He's already promised to "torch DeAngelo Hall" when he faces the flashy Atlanta Falcons cornerback on Sunday, and last year he instituted the Checklist, a whiteboard he kept in his practice locker that listed the cornerbacks who faced him. After each game he'd check off whether or not they succeeded in covering him. Only Cleveland cornerback Leigh Bodden rated a positive mark, after limiting Johnson to two catches for 22 yards.
"It's just me being me," says Johnson of his theatrics. "It just comes out. Spontaneous. But you know what? I have to do it. The whole team feeds on me. They know if 85 is up, then it's gonna be a good day."
He says he has closely studied three of the flamboyant speedsters (and famous trash talkers) who came before him--Moss and Owens and Deion Sanders--and while he professes to admire all three, he believes he can avoid the pitfalls and public approbation they encountered. "You can say the system turned against all three," he says, "or you can ask, Did they do something wrong? They're all good friends of mine, but I don't know. Like T.O.--I just don't handle my business that way. I'm smart. I'm not stupid.
"Or Randy mooning the crowd [after a touchdown in Green Bay two seasons ago]. I loved it. But you have to think of the kids, of who was watching. So I can't make that kind of mistake. I have to have common sense."
Johnson has struck upon what may be the perfect formula. He walks, talks and acts like the dangerous, trash-talking wide receiver, yet unlike other members of the club he doesn't speak critically about his teammates or call out his quarterback. "He has an internal compass that will keep him from bashing his team," says his former agent Jerome Stanley. "The difference between Owens, Moss and Chad is that Chad is so damn likable." Johnson is acutely aware that fans, his teammates and corporate America will turn against him if he crosses that line, threatening not just his status with the Bengals--in April he received a six-year, $35.5 million contract extension--but marketing deals with Degree antiperspirant, Reebok and Fathead, and several more in the works. "I want to be the positive bad boy," he says. "If you can have all that excitement and thrills without all the negative connotations--oh, man, it's gonna get ridiculous. How can you resist that?"
But run into Johnson after a disappointing game, such as a recent 14--13 loss to Tampa Bay, during which he had six catches for 99 yards but no scores, and he comes dangerously close to burning up some of that good will, complaining about the game plan, about not getting more balls thrown his way. When asked what was wrong out there, he says, "You saw the game. How can I catch a ball that's in the dirt?" But sensing that he is in dangerous territory, he quickly backpedals. "The whole team lost. When things aren't going well, you have to look at everyone. No way you can blame one person."
Palmer acknowledges Johnson's frustration and commends him for being patient when the offense moves away from him. "I think he's understanding now that if he doesn't have a big game, there are two other receivers who can have a big game," says the quarterback.
"He likes to be outspoken, to be out there a little bit," says Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, Johnson's receiving partner at Santa Monica ( Calif.) Community College. "He loves the game so much, and he shows it. But he's not gonna go too far. Chad has been through too much to throw it all away."