Rudi Johnson crinkles his nose and grimaces as he talks about the brutal off-season workouts he endured in preparation for his first season as the Bengals' feature running back. He mentions weightlifting, swimming, footwork and agility drills, kickboxing classes and, the centerpiece of his regimen, showdowns against his cousin Armin Harris at a Virginia Beach recreation center. "We'd lock ourselves in the pit and just go at it for three hours," says Johnson. "I'd be drenched in sweat, just dead by the end." And what exactly were these two modern gladiators doing, locked in this subterranean pit? "Racquetball, man," says Johnson, adjusting his skullcap and nodding emphatically. "It's real good for quickness. You're in such a small space, and that little ball is fast. It keeps you on your toes."
Johnson's conditioning and agility will be important factors in Cincinnati's bid to end a 14-year playoff drought. The more effectively he runs, the less pressure there will be on quarterback Carson Palmer, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, who was named the starter by coach Marvin Lewis in the off-season after backing up Jon Kitna last year. As Palmer grows into the job, the Bengals will turn to the 24-year-old Johnson to jump-start the offense.
It is quite a contrast to his situation last fall, when Johnson, a fourth-round choice in 2001, started the season third on the depth chart, behind Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett. At 5'10", 220 pounds Johnson is a thick, powerful back who runs well between the tackles. As a junior he had the second-best rushing year in Auburn history (1,567 yards, 219 behind Bo Jackson's total in 1985), but he played in only nine games in his first two NFL seasons combined. Last year, however, after Dillon went down with knee and groin injuries and Bennett faltered, Johnson came off the bench to lead Cincinnati in rushing. He also set a team record by running for 150 or more yards three times in a season, despite getting only five starts.
The emergence of Johnson allowed the Bengals to trade Dillon, who'd been at odds with the front office, to the Patriots for a second-round draft selection. The move helps team chemistry, but it will be a challenge to replace the productivity of Dillon, who had six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons before his drop-off last year. "Corey was a quick hitter and a hard runner, whereas Rudi is more patient," says left tackle Levi Jones. "He searches for the hole, then explodes. That comes from getting all the reps while [ Dillon] was injured."
The 6'5", 310-pound Jones, soft-spoken and with a high threshold for pain, is another vital player in the Protect Palmer campaign. He suffered torn cartilage in his right knee on Dec. 7, but he had arthroscopic surgery and played the following week in a win against the 49ers that kept the team in playoff contention. Jones and right tackle Willie Anderson, an excellent run blocker who hasn't been flagged for holding in two seasons, anchor a solid line whose main objective will be to buy time for their second-year passer. "[Young] quarterbacks are always going to struggle some," says Jones. "Our emphasis all camp has been holding our blocks a little longer so Carson can get through his progressions. If we can do that and Rudi can get off to a fast start, we'll be all right."
Not so fast. Even if Johnson runs as well as hoped and Palmer lives up to his potential-- Lewis says the team will build its offense around his deep-passing ability--the Bengals may be held back by a defense that ranked 28th in the league in points and yards allowed in 2003. At least Cincinnati signed or traded for three new defensive starters (middle linebacker Nate Webster, cornerback Deltha O'Neal and safety Kim Herring), giving Lewis reason to be optimistic. "At the beginning of last season we didn't have an identity," he says. "I think we have an identity now. We know who we are and where we're headed."
Whether the Bengals' final destination is the playoffs, Johnson can't say, but he does promise something that has been in short supply for the team's fans for many years. "This season," he says, "is going to be a lot of fun." --C.B.
> Defensive end JUSTIN SMITH had his best all-around season last year, with 60 tackles. The fourth pick in the 2001 draft, he's been the Bengals' most productive lineman during his three seasons. Fast, intense and strong--he lists weightlifting as his favorite hobby-- Smith will be the stopper on a unit that must improve on its No. 28 ranking of a year ago.