Time for Bengals to heal themselves, excise Johnson
By John Clayton
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Updated: June 12, 2008
When the subject was Chad Johnson, few wanted to talk to the media about it Thursday. Coach Marvin Lewis (left) was angry, QB Carson Palmer (center) was frustrated, and Johnson himself was silent.
CINCINNATI -- Chad Johnson showed up Thursday at Cincinnati Bengals minicamp with an ailment. According to his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, Johnson might need to have a sore ankle -- a lingering injury from last season -- scoped.
Hours after that revelation, the Bengals issued this statement and said the ankle might not be the only body part giving him trouble:
"Chad Johnson was given a physical this morning by one of the Bengals' team doctors," the statement said. "He did not report any physical problems to the doctor, and he was cleared by the doctor for practice. Later, after the physical was concluded, Chad told our training staff that his back was sore. He refused to practice."
Welcome to the jungle, the Chad Johnson Jungle.
Though Johnson's strange arrival brought both comic relief to some of his teammates and heartburn to Bengals management, it also pointed to a lingering ailment the Bengals can't shake. The whole Johnson controversy is pulling this franchise backward. Because the Bengals won't honor his trade demands, Johnson is proving more trouble to Cincinnati than he's worth.
I didn't think I'd say this, but it's time for a trade -- even though I know it won't happen. Johnson's unhappiness is pulling the franchise backward. It took years for the Bengals to acknowledge that former talented malcontents Carl Pickens and Corey Dillon were destroying team morale before their departures.
It's reached that stage with Johnson. The Bengals have an ailment: Johnson's remaining a Bengal. It's time to fix the problem.
There are problems with trading Johnson.
First, they don't want to reward Johnson's behavior by giving him what he wants -- out of Cincinnati. But even if Bengals management was willing to make a move, the team can't give him up for a second-round draft choice or lower. One solution would be offering to fulfill his trade request if Johnson could find a team willing to give at least a first-round choice and paying the Bengals the remaining $8 million proration in his contract. This isn't the signing bonus he earned for past services. It's for the unfulfilled portion of the contract.
But there's even a bigger problem: The Bengals' philosophy is that they won't trade a player they don't wish to trade, regardless of the offers. For years, they resisted requests for Pickens and Dillon, and they reportedly turned down an offer from the Redskins for Johnson in April.
It's policy. It's the Bengals' way, and they don't care what those outside the organize believe.
It's why you hear frustration in the voice of Carson Palmer.
"I'm going to pass on talking about Chad today," Palmer said. "I think everybody in here is sick about hearing about him. Everybody out there is sick hearing about him. I'm not going to talk about him. I'll talk about the other guys."
It's why you hear anger in the voice of head coach Marvin Lewis.
"At some point in the morning, he expressed to our medical staff he had an ailment," Lewis said about Johnson's decision not to practice. "I think we're kind of investigating what kind of ailment it is. Anyways, he's here. We went through the meeting. He didn't take any reps."
Lewis said Johnson's nonparticipation was a good thing because young receivers such as Marcus Maxwell, Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell could move forward. Their development has been the positive aspect of the spring preparation for the season.
Still, you would think the presence of one of the league's most-talented and most-colorful players would be a boost. To be honest, it was depressing. Johnson arrived on the field just after the team finished stretching. He did a few of the early loosening drills at the beginning but afterward just watched.
Occasionally, he'd joke with a player or a coach. Because the heat and humidity rose as the morning practice continued, Johnson put a towel on top of his head. and I'm sure Bengals management would like to throw in the towel on the Johnson distraction.
In many ways, the Bengals have taken positive steps during Johnson's absence from the team. Simpson, Caldwell and Maxwell seem like promising third and fourth options in the offense. Halfback Rudi Johnson, heavier yet quicker after an offseason in the weight room, looks great. Backup halfback Chris Perry, plagued by injuries most of his Bengals career, finally could be the third-down backfield option the team has been hoping to unleash.
To be honest, I never thought Johnson's presence would actually cast a pall on this franchise. When you see Palmer and Lewis talk about the new players on offense and some of the new additions on defense, their faces light up and they smile.
Mention Chad Johnson and watch those two smiles turn to frowns.
"I don't think it's a distraction at all," Palmer said in unconvincing fashion. "He's here. That's the only difference."
Nothing's changed. It's June. If Johnson needs arthroscopic surgery, why didn't that happen in February? It's June, and Johnson remains a Bengal. The team is trying to move forward. His presence won't allow it.
My guess is Johnson now will show up for training camp and create a summer of despair. Rosenhaus prefers to have his players at camp. Did you notice two of his clients -- Plaxico Burress and Jeremy Shockey -- attended Giants minicamp but didn't participate because they want new deals? Expect them to be in training camp next month. Like Burress and Shockey, Johnson doesn't want to lose $14,000 a day pushing for a trade that probably won't happen.
To check the pulse of the team, I talked to Bengals vet Willie Anderson. Anderson's the sage of this franchise. He watched the yearly rants and distractions of Pickens and Dillon.
"We've always dealt with stuff," Anderson said. "We're kind of used to things being chaotic a bit. We've been through the whole deal. You kinda learn how to deal with it as you go. When guys are younger, you are quicker to say something in defense of the team. As you get older, you let that person and whoever he's mad at and deal with it himself."
Years ago, I watched the same thing develop in San Francisco with Terrell Owens. Players became numb to his rants against management and quarterback, Jeff Garcia. When it gets to the point at which the players say, "Well, that's T.O.," and nothing surprises them, it's time a change.
The locker room is numb to Johnson's antics. He needs a fresh start. Businesswise, the Bengals are smart not to allow a player to dictate to them. But good business sometimes affects chemistry, and it's reached that point in Cincinnati.
It's time to fix the Bengals' ailment and start to move forward.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.