You have one new voice mail message.
Rudi Johnson is on his way to get a haircut, maneuvering his platinum Mercedes SUV through downtown Cincinnati, when the crystal-blue light of his cell phone begins to blink. Halfway between Pete Rose Way and Paul Brown Stadium, the supermellow 24-year-old is trying to shake off the suggestion that he's Cincinnati's next sports icon-until his own voice mail betrays him. At a red light, Johnson listens to the message. He laughs, then repeats it at full volume for his passenger. It's an office full of people chanting "Rooo-di Rooo-DI ROOO-DI," followed by the beginnings of a giggle and a hang-up.
At some point last year, around the time Johnson was turning the Bungles into a legit NFL team, his cell phone number became Cincinnati's least-kept secret. Most jocks change their digits when this happens, but Johnson isn't bothered. "Now," he says, "I get a couple of these messages a week."
His greeting inside Incredible Creations hair salon is more laid-back. The tiny storefront shop, located on a hill overlooking downtown, is packed with customers watching Terror Squad on BET. The polished wood floor is covered in clippings. There's an acoustic guitar in the corner and an open Bible on top of a cabinet. Shop owner Devan Johnson, no relation to Rudi, waves Johnson in, snaps a red cape around his neck and leans the chair back to nearly horizontal. Johnson, who is 5'10" and 220 pounds, causes the chair to teeter for a moment, which makes the cape trying to cover his chest look more like a bib. Devan rubs moisturizer into a fresh scab on Johnson's chin, then places a hot towel over his face. But for a while, Johnson keeps gabbing, his low tones muffled by the towel. He's constantly answering questions, about himself, about his team, about his future.
Last year, under first-year coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals finished 8-8, their first nonlosing record in 13 years. But in the spring, prickly former Pro Bowl back Corey Dillon, the team's all-time leading rusher, was shipped to the Patriots for a second-round pick. And last year's top overall pick, Carson Palmer, was named starting quarterback despite not having played a down last season. Yet the Bengals, despite their season-opening, 31-24 loss to the Jets, are still every expert's trendy playoff pick, and Johnson is a big reason why. A two-year benchwarmer before 2003, Johnson symbolizes the team's resurgence. He started five games last season, ran for 957 yards and nine touchdowns and became the first Bengal with three games of 150 rushing yards in a season.
But when Johnson, who had 22 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown against the Jets, became a restricted free agent, Cincinnati's suits blew off signing him to a long-term deal. Instead they opted for a wait-and-see one-year, $1.8 million contract. Then they used a first-round pick to draft Michigan tailback Chris Perry. "Everyone's waiting to see if Rudi and the rest of us are for real," says tackle Willie Anderson. "Or not."
Inside the barbershop, customers wonder out loud how the mixed signals and added pressure have affected Johnson. They wait for a response, and get nothing. The question is repeated. No answer. Rudi? Yo, Rudi? Johnson is so racked with anxiety, he's sound asleep in the chair. He snoozes through the clippers, three different applications of moisturizer and a session with the straight razor. "My situation fits this team perfectly," Johnson says after his nap. "We still have a lot to prove, and I don't mind proving myself, again and again and again. That's never really been a problem for me."
Then Johnson checks his 'do in a mirror, peels three twenties off his roll and leaves.
HIS HAIRCUTS used to be free. When Johnson was growing up in Ettrick, Va., running over Pop Warner defenses, the local barber promised him a free haircut for every touchdown he scored. By Johnson's count, he will be 95 before he pays for his first trim back home.
He was always short and stout, and too strong for his age. The youngest of three boys raised by a single mom, 5-year-old Rudi wore football equipment to his 10-year-old brother Vuri's Pop Warner games. He'd stalk the sidelines, flattening any spectator who dared get within arm's reach. As a teenager, Johnson challenged Vuri's buddies to wrestling matches. "We had to stop," says Vuri, 29. "Rudi kept breaking everyone's arms."
But after subpar high school grades scared off recruiters, Johnson's only collegiate football offer was a tryout at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan. He landed in the prairie with one bag, a tape of Super Bowl highlights that he watched every night before bed and a three-year plan to make the NFL. On the first day of practice for the Grizzlies, he realized he was one of about a hundred players vying for the 10 roster spots given to out-of-state players. "You want to talk pressure?" says Johnson. "That's pressure." Johnson made the cut, and in two juco seasons he rushed for more than 3,800 yards, capped off by a 373-yard, seven-touchdown MVP performance in the 1999 juco national championship game.
Auburn running backs coach Eddie Gran was at that game. He still struggles to describe Johnson's performance. He talks about the stocky back's balance after contact, his quick feet, his field vision, the way he hit holes so hard you half expected to hear a sonic boom. "I have never seen a back who got so much better in the fourth quarter," says Gran. "Not just stronger, but better. That's not supposed to happen."
In his one season at Auburn, Johnson carried the ball a school-record 324 times for 1,567 yards (second behind Bo Jackson's 1,786 yards in 1985), and was named the 2000 SEC Player of the Year. Keeping to his three-year plan, he declared for the NFL draft in the spring of 2001. But he was too slow and too thick to wow the scouts. The Bengals picked him up in the fourth round, then limited him to special teams. In his first two seasons, Johnson carried the ball 17 times in nine games and sat through 24 L's. "All that losing, not playing, it was crazy," Johnson says. "I Was hurting."
But what could he say? Although Dillon constantly whined about playing for a losing franchise, he performed, averaging 1,253 yards his first six years in the league. For better, and worse, he was the face of the Bengals. Then a pregame fender bender last Oct. 26 prevented Dillon from reaching Paul Brown Stadium in time to warm up. Lewis promoted Johnson to starter moments before kickoff, and Johnson responded by running for 101 yards in a 27-24 win over Seattle. "I was always more nervous and uncomfortable as a backup," Johnson says. "To me, starting, carrying the ball, that's the most natural thing in the world."
It was Johnson's unflappable demeanor, not to mention his running, that helped the Bengals go 5-1 during a midseason stretch, as Dillon played the diva after his benching. Dillon demanded to be traded, retracted, then pouted. After the season finale against Cleveland, he heaved his shoulder pads into the stands. The difference between the team's two top backs was not lost on teammates. "There's a freshness to Rudi," Anderson says. "He came up hard and with no hype. You won't ever find him flying off on his own, beating his chest, yelling, 'Look at me'."
Johnson, in fact, acts more like a 34-year-old veteran than a 24-year-old on the verge of stardom. When he writes down his phone number, the one everyone seems to have, he includes his full name and position, as if you've never heard of him. Until recently buying a condo, Johnson lived on the fourth floor of an Embassy Suites across the Ohio River from Paul Brown Stadium. "Maid service, man," Johnson says, "and free breakfast."
Waiting patiently behind Dillon, Johnson had to be frugal, never knowing if he'd get a shot or get cut. To stay sharp during his downtime, he studied star players. When watching tape of Eddie George, he learned to trust his linemen and hit his holes. From Peyton Manning, he could see how tireless game prep allowed the QB to react without thinking. He even learned from Dillon, who practiced with an intensity that belied his prima-donna behavior. "You can tell Johnson's smart by the way he runs," says Falcons head coach Jim Mora. "Good running backs see it before it happens because they trust and understand how an entire scheme affects their run path."
Cincinnati's offense complements Johnson's bull-rushing skills. Utilizing massive linemen like Anderson (340 pounds), tackle Levi Jones (310) and guard Eric Steinbach (297), the scheme creates interior running lanes by flooding inside zones with blockers. Often, Anderson or Jones will crisscross the actual hole to seal off would-be tacklers. From the halfback's perspective, that much tonnage in such a small space can often look like a 10-car pileup. Even when the running alleys are clear, they tend to float back and forth, depending on the speed and angle of pursuit. Says Johnson: "You gotta run with your eyes as much as your feet."
The system requires a back who trusts that the hole will be there; who keeps his balance after punching through the roadkill at the line; who uses his vision to anticipate and execute one decisive open-field cut. A less confident runner sees the mess up front and leaps sideways in a panic, prematurely cutting back at the line and making enemies of his linemen. (This is one reason Perry has yet to mount a serious challenge to Johnson's job.) "Rudi's just textbook," says Anderson. "He might not be glamorous, but he's got all the characteristics of a great back. We're gonna make him a gritty, grimy star."
Two weeks after that game against Seattle last season, Johnson gained 182 yards, scored two touchdowns and carried the ball 43 times-tying Butch Woolfolk's NFL record for most carries in a nonovertime game-during a 34-27 win against the Texans. Thirty-four of those carries were up the gut. Johnson may not be stopwatch fast, but his quick feet and balance after contact are reminiscent of a young Emmitt Smith. His style is brutal but economical, helping him conserve his energy while opponents expend theirs trying to tackle him. That's why most of his longer runs, like a 49-yard touchdown in a 41-38 win against the Niners in December, come late in games. "There's a cumulative effect," says Mora, the Niners' defensive coordinator last season. "As the game wears on, guys start thinking they don't want to get hit by Rudi anymore."
It's that style of play that inspires fans to chant his name. After 13 years of getting run over, they're giddy that the Bengals finally have someone who can dish it out. Even the perpetually relaxed Johnson breaks form when talking about what could be this season. Headed home after his haircut, his Benz rolling along the Roebling Suspension Bridge 100 feet above the Ohio River, Johnson confesses he's excited about playing against Denver on Oct. 25, Cincy's first home Monday Night Football game in 12 years. And then, in a whisper barely audible above the hum of the bridge's metal grate, he says he doesn't want to break Dillon's single-season club record of 1,435 yards rushing, he wants to "shatter it." He says he doesn't want to make the playoffs, he wants to star in the Super Bowl XXXIX highlight DVD.
"All those doubters out there?" Johnson says while gesturing out his front window, where a Bengal-orange sun is setting behind Paul Brown Stadium. "Tell them we got what we need."
Consider that his outgoing message.
Rudi isn't the NFL's only FA-to-be. Here are five other pros in their walk years hoping to parlay a good season into a great deal. -JOHN CLAYTON
JOHN ABRAHAM In four years with the Jets, he's missed 27 games and started just 37. But when healthy, he delivers. In 2001 and 2002 combined, Abraham had 31 starts and 23 sacks, and made two Pro Bowls. Guess what? He's healthy. Even better news for Abraham: he'll be switching between LB and DE, so O-lines can't find him.
RON DAYNE After four seasons in Jim Fassel's doghouse, the 26-year-old Dayne is Tom Coughlin's fave. The RB had just 1,888 yards coming into the season, but started the Giants opener against the Eagles, and scored New York's first TD of the year. His promotion gives the ex Heisman winner 15 more games to earn a raise.
PLAXICO BURRESS Bad move: the five-year vet blew off Bill Cowher's off-season training program. Good move: he came to camp in great shape and more willing to go across the middle. But will it matter? Cowher wants Tommy Maddox to throw 100 fewer passes in 2004. A lot of those would have gone to Burress.
EDGERRIN JAMES Will the Colts re-sign the 26 year-old James or the 32 year-old Marvin Harrison? "Doesn't matter," says EJ. "I can play." He's right. After two injury-filled seasons, James played like a Pro Bowler last year, rushing for 1,259 yards. If he stays in form, he can be sure that if Indy won't pay, someone else will.
COREY SIMON The Eagles fifth-year DT already hit the jackpot when Philly signed Jevon Kearse and Hugh Douglas. Without them, his 7.5 sacks in 2003 led the team, matching the combined sack total of Philly's DEs. With his flank now protected, Simon will owe Douglas and Kearse a portion of the fat new deal he'll get next year.
These five players joined Johnson as part-time prime-time performers in 2003. Now they too must show up for all 16 games. -J.C.
KEVAN BARLOW He rushed for 1,024 yards while starting just four games, which earned the four-year vet a five-year, $20M deal and the Niners' full-time RB gig. "Now," says Barlow, "I have to deliver." At 238 pounds, he's physical enough to carry the load. Problem is, without Terrell Owens, every defense in the league will key on him.
REX GROSSMAN Of all the young NFL QBs, he has the toughest challenge. The Bears installed the Rams O, but Chicago's WRs are too big and too slow to take advantage of open seams and quick strikes. If his receivers can't get separation, Grossman will be making hurried passes into a short field. That's a recipe for failure.
CARLOS HALL A part-time Titans DE since 2002, Hall has 11 sacks in 17 career starts. Now his game needs to expand. The required new skill? Run-stopper. Says Hall: "Critics don't think I can do it." Fortunately, he'll have time to prove he can.
JERRY PORTER The five-year vet has finally cracked the Raiders' starting lineup, just in time to benefit from Norv Turner's long-ball O. At 6'2", 220 pounds, Porter is tough for any DB to jam at the line. And with 4.3 speed, he can outrun most of them. Last season, he had just 28 catches in 10 games. This year, 82 in 16 is more likely.
LEE SUGGS All the second-year back needed to prove he deserved a shot as Cleveland's starter was 56 rushes--he was good for 5.2 yards per last year. During camp he beat out incumbent William Green, a former No. 1 pick, and surprised Butch Davis with his soft hands. Now, he might have 56 carries after two games.