GEORGETOWN — If it looked like Rudi Johnson was just a shade of his former self last season, it's because he literally was.
After posting more rushing yards (4,221) and rushing touchdowns (36) than any other Cincinnati Bengal in a three-year span, a smaller, lighter Johnson struggled mightily in 2007.
In an attempt to gain speed and take pressure off his knee following surgery in 2005, Johnson lost weight in back-to-back off-seasons. In between battling a hamstring injury last season — which limited Johnson to 497 yards, his fewest since 2002 — and running with less bulk, Johnson took a different approach.
Gone was his ability to knock over defenders. With it went the chants of “Rudi, Rudi, Rudi,” as well as Cincinnati wins.
Three days into Bengals training camp at Georgetown College, it appears Johnson has regained his old form. The eighth-year player out of Auburn reported about 15 pounds heavier than last year. Now at about 230 pounds, Johnson looks bigger, stronger and just as fast.
“He's on a mission,” offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. “He looks like the Rudi of old, and that's exciting.”
If the Bengals are indeed getting back the Rudi of old, they'll get a player who can carry the ball 30 times a game for 120-plus yards and milk the clock for every second it's worth.
The Rudi of old is “a very productive player,” Bratkowski said. “Rudi gained a lot of yards, made a lot of tough yards and was a player that at the end of the game actually became a stronger runner. And that's what we hope to get back to with him.”
Johnson might even be better than ever. Though he put the weight back on, Johnson adhered to the same strict diet he always had and worked with strength and conditioning coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver to strengthen his lower body.
“I still have a six-pack and all that, so I'm still in shape,” Johnson said.
With Johnson at tailback, the Bengals realize they're never going to have a guy that blazes past defensive backs in a trail of dust or shakes linebackers out of their shoes. They've always known that.
But it took last year's setback for Johnson to realize it himself.
Asked if he was ready to revert to his old bulldozing, yet durable style of running, Johnson said: “No doubt. That's me. That's what I do.”
Johnson said his running style has never changed, but it was evident last year that he struggled to pummel defenders like he used to.
“I was a little less powerful than normal,” Johnson said. “Now I'm just back to what I do and back to the basics. The good thing about it is everything is proportioned the right way, everything is put together the right way.”
When Johnson had that weight, he often carried the Bengals to wins — the Bengals are 18-1 when he carries the ball 25 times or more.
But Johnson was rarely able to do that last season. Hampered by the hamstring injury, he carried the ball 25 times only once. And though his 2.9 rushing average marked the first time he's struggled in his pro career, he feels like he's out to prove himself all over again.
“It was a tough time as far as just being on the sideline not being able to contribute the way I always have in the past,” Johnson said. “Having to sit there not being able to run full speed or make cuts definitely took a toll on me. That was last year, that's behind me now.”
Coach Marvin Lewis has made it no secret that the Bengals plan to run the ball more in 2008. Johnson obviously fits into those plans, but Lewis has hinted that they might employ a running-back-by-committee style.
Veteran running back Kenny Watson and the return of a healthy Chris Perry fit into those plans and will probably lighten Johnson's workload, but he's willing to accept a reduction of carries for an increase in wins.
“It means winning football,” Johnson said. “If you're able to run the football, control the clock, keep the ball in your possession, that's all about winning football.”