Although not official yet, it appears that the Bengals will sign former Chiefs' running back Larry Johnson, likely as insurance in the case Cedric Benson's hip injury worsens. This, folks, isn't a good move. It isn't one that will kill the team (or at least I hope not), but still, even if Larry gets a minimum-NFL contract, I'm strongly against it. Here's why:
1. Larry Johnson's Age
This week, Johnson will turn thirty years old. Sure, the effect aging has on a running back once he's thirty has been overstated, but there is still a clear trend towards decline after the age of twenty-eight. Especially considering Johnson's impressive but damaging attempt numbers during his Kansas City days (416 carries in 2006), the chances of him going back to even a decent Y/A of 4.3 or slightly below are poor.
2. Larry Johnson's Performance
This correlates with reason number one, obviously. Johnson, since 2005, has been a player who has either benefited from a large number of carries, leading to deceptive counting stats, or has been out because of injury. Frankly, Johnson has proven that even when he is "on" -- and obviously the bar has been set lower for what is considered good performance from him, on account of his age and injuries -- his value lies primarily in being able to handle a heavy load. Besides that, Johnson really isn't a great pass blocker and hasn't made an impact as a receiver since '06. If Marvin Lewis, during his press conference today, was truthful in his claim that Larry would serve as the fourth running back, it seems to me that not taking advantage of his one noticeable quality would make the risk the Bengals would make signing Johnson unnecessary and foolish.
3. The Bengals' Offensive Philosophy
Bob Bratkowski, for as much crap as we give him, has focused on running the football this season. This is evident in the many unbalanced lines and two tight-end/full-back sets we've seen the offense come out in.This makes life easier for the running back, who not only gets holes created for him, but also acquires assistance in the second level of a defense. Because of these favorable conditions, one might think that the Bengals don't have to risk money and a roster spot just because a guy could have some talent left. This situation simply does not necessitate drastic moves, as the running game should be kept afloat even without Benson or another premier back due Brat's heavy run-blocking schemes.
4. The Overall Situation
When would the Bengals need insurance at running back? On its surface, that's an absurd question; no team really knows when they'll need their insurance-type players. But looking further into it, this seems to be the time for Marvin to use backs besides Benson, for a variety of reasons. Benson's hurt, and given the amount of carries he's gotten so far this season and the weak slate of opponents scheduled for the next three weeks, handing the ball off to him in excess of ten to fifteen times in these upcoming games isn't ideal or smart. Larry Johnson, even if he signs now, probably won't be able to play yet; he'll have to sit out at least one or two games in order to study and master the playbook, especially with his responsibilities in the offense's unique zone-blocking runs. Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard should therefore receive their fair share of touches, whether Johnson is signed or not, in November, meaning that by the time Larry is fully aware of how to run effectively in the offense, Scott and/or Leonard should be settled in and able to handle a heavier load. If Lewis and Mikey Boy are looking to plug in someone new right now, or at least add stable depth, why not bring someone who already knows what to do in? Why not DeDe Dorsey?
5. Chemistry, Image, Teamwork, Etc
Really, do I need to spend time on this? We all know what Johnson has done, and we all know the risk he brings. Based on the above, I don't see the point in potentially damaging the team by bringing him in. No, I'm not one who believes in team obliterators (wow, that abbreviates out to TO-- you're a clever one, Skip Bayless); the notion that one man can bring fifty-two other players down seems like the material an analyst devoid of any actual insight brings. But still, I don't completely ignore the problems a troubled player can spread. Mikey Boy shouldn't either.