Johnson believes best is yet to come
Chad Johnson has big plans for 2006, and he's not going to let anyone or anything stand in his way, writes Len Pasquarelli.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Leave it to The Human Filibuster to defy the league's latest attempt at enforced etiquette by cranking the volume to the max on his personal soundtrack.
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There is no off-switch, Johnson insisted following a Wednesday night practice, for the manifestations of merriment that his fertile imagination has already conjured up.
"I can't be stopped," said Johnson, laughing and flashing his trademark gold grillwork. "That's what I'm always telling people, right? It's kind of become my [mantra]. And this year, it's going to be doubly true, believe me. They can't keep me out of the end zone and the competition committee isn't going to be able to totally [ban] all of the stuff that I've got planned."
Yep, if you think the decibel level of Johnson's diatribes was earsplitting in the past, and dare surmise that entering his sixth NFL season he might have run out of ways to thumb his nose at the antiseptic, automaton nature of a too-uptight league, well, get ready for some new extremes of absurdity on both counts.
The man who has rung up more receiving yards in the NFL than any other player in the last two seasons, a guy who has averaged 94 catches, 1,354 yards and 9.3 touchdown grabs over the past three years and earned three straight Pro Bowl berths, seems intent in 2006 on doing it even better.
And, of course, on doing it badder, as well.
But since Johnson's got to score before he can excoriate the league's new rules against premeditated and excessive end zone celebrations, first things first.
Johnson is taking aim -- and he gestured to quarterback Carson Palmer, seated on a bench about 40 yards away and speaking to ESPN.com colleague John Clayton, as his principal accomplice -- on the touchdown receptions record of 22 established by the incomparable Jerry Rice in 1987. The way Johnson views things, the only way he is ever going to separate himself from the likes of contemporaries such as Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, Terrell Owens and Steve Smith, is to do something undeniably special.
"Oh, no, don't get him started [on how he compares to those players]," Palmer cautioned.
But, of course, as Palmer already knows and Johnson reiterates ad nauseam in the course of every interview well, you know, the man cannot be stopped. And in 2006, Johnson is vowing to be even more unstoppable than ever.
"I've got to do something," Johnson insisted, "that is really extraordinary, that burns up the record books."
And, hey, if a few opposition cornerbacks get flambéed along the way, so be it.
Johnson's litany of potential foils for this season has received a makeover. Tucked away in his locker in the congested Bengals' dressing area is the latest incarnation of Johnson's cornerback hit list. But for 2006, the once-bland, typed roster of intended victims, temporarily banned by coach Marvin Lewis last season, has been far more lavishly executed by its creator.
It now comes, Johnson says, complete with pictures. The man who has provided the big-play dimension to the Bengals' passing attack has, for this season, added a second dimension to his locker stall handiwork.
The two premier players have become pretty close in the offseason, exchanging phone calls, hanging out once in a while, swapping strategies and more. But their burgeoning friendship notwithstanding, the two have also spent much of the offseason calling each other out and talking smack, lobbing verbal salvos in each other's direction with all the deftness of a Palmer-tossed corner route.
Possessed of a bodacious bent nearly the equal of Johnson's penchant for braggadocio, Hall apparently has suggested that he is now the NFL's top cover cornerback, a shutdown guy who has earned the right to wear the No. 21 uniform jersey that once belonged to Deion Sanders during his stint with the Falcons. Such words are more than a challenge, indeed they are an affront to Johnson, who is usually an equal opportunity arsonist when it comes to burning cornerbacks, but who is clearly itching to light up Hall.
Apprised that Hall is a pretty close friend of ours, Johnson didn't blink.
"That's fine," Johnson said, "but I'm still coming after his ass when we play them [on Oct. 29 in Paul Brown Stadium]. Just so everybody knows."
What Johnson didn't know, until we told him, is that because of the season-ending knee injury sustained by Brian Finneran last weekend, Hall is lining up as a part-time wide receiver. The Falcons brass has installed a package of about 12-15 pass plays for Hall, who could become the team's No. 3 wide receiver if all the other candidates falter and the Atlanta staff decides he can handle the additional workload.
So how about the ultimate mano a mano on Oct. 29, with Johnson and Hall each playing both sides of the ball for their respective teams?
Not surprisingly, Johnson's eyes grew pie-wide at the notion and, even in the sparsely lighted area under the bleachers at Georgetown College, his gold-capped teeth seemed to glow a little brighter. But then, alas, reality, hardly a frequent visitor to Chad's World, settled in.
"You remember when they let me play cornerback for a few plays in the Pro Bowl?" Johnson reminded. "The owners here read about those plans and they about had a heart attack. And now they've got even more money invested in me, so no way would they let it happen. But you know me. I'd do it. Get somebody like Don King involved in promoting it. Give it a fancy nickname. It'd be like a heavyweight fight. I'm ready to go into training right now."
All eyes are on Carson Palmer this preseason, and for good reason. The top quarterback in fantasy last year is critical to the Bengals' fortunes, and he can make or break a fantasy season as well. Our advice is to not expect another 32 touchdowns, or big September numbers, but Palmer can still lead your team, especially if his recovering knee scares your fellow fantasy owners away.
-- Eric Karabell
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Sure, there was the GQ photo shoot this spring. And the time spent as a judge for an NFL cheerleader contest. And when good buddy Geoff Hobson, the prolific editor of the Bengals' web site, ventured to Miami just a few weeks ago to author a pre-camp feature on Johnson, the interview was conducted in the back of a stretch limousine. In order to sit down, Hobson had to nudge aside one of the seven models accompanying Johnson.
Yet when Johnson reported here for the start of camp, there were no hints of an offseason squandered in debauchery and delinquency. Said Lewis: "He's in great shape. And, as usual, he's asking for the ball even more. He's a guy who has a pride and passion to his game."
Johnson acknowledged that passion was misdirected during last year's wild card playoff defeat to the eventual Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise most Bengals veterans regard with a remarkable level of disdain. In a much-ballyhooed halftime blowup, Johnson pitched a hissy-fit at not getting the ball enough. There were reports that Johnson, at one point in the incident, threw punches at an unnamed assistant coach. Another report suggested Johnson had the coach in a headlock.
He doesn't deny the contretemps, but does challenge rumors he was out of control and that the incident took on a physical element.
"There are just times, and that was one of the unfortunate ones, where my emotions definitely can get the better of me," Johnson conceded. "One of the things I worked hard on conditioning in the offseason was my temper. I think I've gotten better. I know I'm a better player and, hopefully, a better person, too, in some areas I had to get better at."
None of that is good news for the cornerbacks whose mug shots will soon adorn the wall of Johnson's locker stall at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals will move for the second half of training camp after a Saturday session here. Nor is it good news for Ray Anderson, the former Atlanta Falcons executive who was named this week as the league's new senior director of football operations. Part of Anderson's job will entail reviewing players' on-field conduct, doling out fines to players, and hearing their appeals.
Armed with a new six-year, $35.5 million contract, a deal negotiated by agent Drew Rosenhaus that put a nifty $10 million in bonuses into Johnson's pocket, he has more financial wherewithal than ever to pay off all the fines he could amass for violating the league's policies on excessive celebrations. Then again, the always provocative Johnson claims he has already formulated a plan for avoiding sanctions.
The basic premise: Using fans as human props.
"Look, they said you can't use props, right?" Johnson said. "You can't bring anything onto the field, or hide it in the end zone, or whatever. I mean, to me, it's silly, because on one hand they really want us to be entertainers, and then they take away a way to entertain people. But here's the thing: Every week, I will get in front of the cameras and kind of announce, in a secret way, what I want the fans to do for that game. I mean, it'll be kind of like a code, but there will be enough hints that people should be able to get it. And every week, the fans will be my props. They can't fine me for that. It's going to drive the competition committee crazy trying to figure it out.
"It's going to be like a soap opera, a continuing thing every week, with new episodes. People won't be able to miss it because, just like with a soap opera, you'll lose track. So everyone is going to have to watch to get that week's secret message. Plus, with the year I'm going to have, they're not going to want to miss any of it anyway."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .