Johnson welcomes heavy workload

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The ritual began rather innocuously in an Oct. 26, 2003 game against the Seattle Seahawks. In only the second start of his career, Rudi Johnson began pedaling a stationary bike on the sidelines to keep his legs loose in the fourth quarter.

Subbing for injured starter Corey Dillon that day, Johnson ran for 101 yards on 25 carries, the first century-mark performance of his NFL career.

Four years later, with three straight seasons of 1,300 or more rushing yards on his résumé, and a reputation as one of the NFL's true workhorse backs, Johnson is still riding that bicycle. And the Cincinnati Bengals, whose offense has ranked among the top eight in the league in each of the past two campaigns, still are riding Johnson.

And they can keep riding him, Johnson suggested here following a wickedly oppressive Sunday afternoon practice, until the wheels fall off.

Which, given the team's poor luck in finding a complementary No. 2 back to reduce the workload of their feature runner, is a distinct possibility.

"I'll take as many [carries] as they want to give me," said Johnson, who during a special-teams segment of practice retreated to the sideline to resume the Tour de Rudi. "That's the mentality that you have to have as a big-time runner. You have to be mentally prepared for that, to handle the load, to let them put the game on you … I mean, if it was up to me, heck, I'd take all the carries."

Johnson, 27, might come close to doing just that in 2007.

Rookie tailback Kenny Irons, the second-round choice taken to add a speed dimension to the Cincinnati backfield and to spell Johnson, sustained a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament injury in the Aug. 9 preseason opener against the Lions. Chris Perry, the club's first-round selection in 2004, has seen his diverse talents eroded by injuries, has appeared in only 22 games in three years, and will begin 2007 on the physically unable to perform list for a second straight year. That leaves hard-working Kenny Watson, a player whose special-teams workload the club had hoped to reduce this year, as the presumptive No. 2 tailback.

And it almost certainly leaves Johnson -- who over the past three years has accounted for 87.2 percent of all the rushing attempts by the Cincinnati running backs, and for 85.5 percent of the yards -- to hoist the club's ground game on his broad shoulders.

It is a role to which the former Auburn star, a fourth-round pick in 2001 who served a three-year apprenticeship behind Dillon until ascending to the full-time starting job in 2004, has become accustomed.

Indeed, Johnson, is the Cincinnati ground game.

Over the past three seasons, in which he has played in every game and started all but three of them, no NFL back has logged more carries than Johnson's 1,039 rushes. He has averaged 346.3 attempts per season in that stretch and 21.7 carries per start. His 4,221 yards since the start of the 2004 season are the fourth most in the league. And his incredibly symmetrical 36 rushing touchdowns, a dozen in each of the last three seasons, are the fifth most.

In that three-year span, the durable Johnson has 28 games in which he carried 20 times or more, including 16 contests with 25-plus attempts and four outings with 30 or more rushes. He has rushed for 100 or more yards 14 times since the beginning of the 2004 season.

Yet the hard-running Johnson, who gains most of his yards between the tackles and after initial contact, is often overlooked. That's mainly because the Bengals boast headline-grabbing passing stars such as quarterback Carson Palmer, and wide receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Johnson was quick to note Sunday that he does not feel underappreciated, because of the respect with which he is regarded by his teammates and players around the league. That was a sentiment echoed by Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.

"He's the kind of runner who gets people excited in the huddle, a very outgoing guy, and an [emotional] player," Lewis said. "Look, we don't want him to get as many carries. But the guy wants that many carries. And when you're in the fourth quarter, trying to put together first downs and shorten the game at 'winning time,' he's the guy. He keeps the chains moving and the clock moving. He's a real closer. In those kinds of situations, you can't not give him the ball. He runs over people."

Like most standout backs, Johnson is blessed with a low center of gravity, great vision and uncanny balance. Those are natural gifts. But he has worked hard in the last few offseasons to condition himself for the rigors of 300-plus carries and the punishment he absorbs as a guy who doesn't shy from contact.

When he entered the league, Johnson was 235 pounds. With his physique now redefined and his weight redistributed, he weighs
in the 214-218 range and, for a power back, looks remarkably trim. This offseason, Johnson spent extra time working with assistant strength and conditioning coach Ray Oliver on his overall leg power.

Lewis recalled that, as a young player, Johnson didn't quite understand the work ethic that is required to be a top-shelf back at the NFL level. He chafed at playing behind Dillon at times, abhorred having to perform on special teams, and his effort waned. But, Lewis emphasized, "when the light went on" for Johnson, it was like someone flipped the switch on a neon sign.

Recalled Johnson, whose efforts were recognized by Cincinnati management in 2005 with a five-year, $26 million contract extension: "A lot of what separates players in this league is how badly they want to be good. And I want to be good."

Based on his numbers over the past three seasons, Johnson, who somehow has yet to be rewarded with a Pro Bowl invitation, ranks among the best. And in one category at least, he feels he is definitely at the top of the NFL pecking order.

Asked following Sunday's practice to identify the league's toughest back, Johnson didn't even blink.

"You're looking at him," he said. "Hands down."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.