CINCINNATI – Hours could be spent trying to unravel the mess of what caused Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson to miss the morning practice and sit out all but roughly 15 minutes of the afternoon practice on the opening day of the team's three-day mini-camp Thursday.
Was it his back, as the Bengals claimed after Johnson was cleared to participate earlier in the day by a team doctor? Was it his ankle, which has been ailing since last season and which Cincinnati asked him to get surgically repaired? Or was it his ego, which is still bruised from getting turned down for a raise and then being told he wouldn't be traded after he asked out earlier this offseason?
Believe whatever you want, but understand this: The time has come for the Bengals to stop trying to figure it out. It's time for the Bengals to get rid of Johnson.
Some people will dismiss that thought as absurd or confuse the issue. This problem is not all of Johnson's making. Too long ago, the Bengals empowered him to act like this. Fact is, the Bengals have allowed too many young men to act like morons. From Carl Pickens to Corey Dillon to Chris Henry, Cincinnati has constantly had everything from malcontents to miscreants but has never been able to rehabilitate any of them.
Why? The short answer is that the team continues to take them and, worse yet, empower them. Johnson's exhibition Thursday was the latest example. After vacillating all offseason about whether he would show up, Johnson did the sensible thing and attended. He then trashed the idea of working hard by standing around while everybody else performed tasks.
The reason that's such a big deal on this team is twofold. First, Johnson's performance is just one big circus. From coach Marvin Lewis to quarterback Carson Palmer to wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh to offensive tackle Willie Anderson, the main topic of conversation Thursday was Johnson. Much of the reason is Johnson didn't open his mouth to explain himself.
Instead, he left it to his coach and teammates to answer. All of them did their best to deflect the conversation but failed miserably. Houshmandzadeh spent 30 minutes answering various questions about Johnson. Lewis answered a dozen questions about Johnson and spent the second half of his press conference rhetorically begging, "Are there any other questions?"
Palmer opened his session with the media by saying he wouldn't talk about Johnson and then spent seven questions either directly or indirectly talking about Johnson.
Sure, it's just a bunch of questions, but it's aggravating and detracts from what is supposed to be the focus of practice. It's hard enough to win in the NFL when everybody is focused on football.
Which leads to reason No. 2 why Cincy must sever ties with Johnson. His behavior sets a bad example for others on the team and continues a vicious cycle that must be reversed. Some Bengals apologists may take exception, but consider the following information.
One playoff team from last season uses a color-coded system for grading players. The four colors range from blue for best to black for worst. Players listed in black are basically undraftable and unsignable. They are the dregs.
Of the league's 32 teams, a handful drafted one player coded black, according to the aforementioned franchise's system. The Bengals took three, starting with defensive lineman Jason Shirley in the fifth round. On Thursday, those players who are borderline acceptable got a lesson in how to work in the NFL from Johnson.
Again, this is not all on Johnson. On another team, Johnson might be fine because of the way the team handles him and what type of players surround him. It's an institutional issue about what you're willing to accept.
The Bengals showed Thursday that they will again put up with anything. No, Johnson didn't do anything really bad. He didn't shoot anybody. He didn't get caught doing some illegal substance. He didn't even bad-mouth the team the way he has for months.
But he made a mockery of the coaches and the team.
Following the afternoon practice, when Johnson spent the first 15 minutes catching about four passes and then shut it down again, Lewis tried his best to downplay the situation. He mocked reporters' questions and basically played apologist for Johnson.
"He showed up and did what he was supposed to do," Lewis said at one point. No, Johnson didn't. He didn't practice and he barely related to his teammates. Johnson talked to all of six people during the two practices.
What he really did was make Lewis and the rest of the organization look like the clowns in his personal circus.
Some people will dismiss the idea of dumping Johnson as reactionary folly. Johnson is just too good. The same thing was said years ago after Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams began alternating between reefer, retirement and return. It's no coincidence that the Dolphins haven't made the playoffs in any of the six years since they traded for Williams and bottomed out last season at 1-15.
Like Williams, Johnson is an addictive talent.
By any statistical measure, Johnson is one of the best offensive players in the game. Beyond stats, you can ask any good defensive coordinator and they'll tell you that Johnson is a guy they have to game plan against in a serious way.
But even with all the talent Johnson possesses and the complementary skills of Palmer, Houshmandzadeh, running back Rudi Johnson and a pretty formidable offensive line, the Bengals have made the playoffs exactly once in Chad Johnson's seven-year career. That was three years ago and the team has gotten progressively worse.
Again, that's not all linked to Johnson. The history of the Bengals is littered with ineptitude. The team hasn't been a serious contender for more than 20 years. As the NFL has gotten more sophisticated, the Bengals have been stuck in a time warp, believing that everybody still is willing to take chances on knuckleheads. It doesn't work that way. In this era, players have to be focused on the task at hand.
Some people might ask how this is different than Plaxico Burress showing up and not practicing with the New York Giants or other players who don't show up at all. In the case of Burress, he's conveyed his desires without publicly blasting the organization. He's also on a team that understands what it takes to win. The Giants didn't just win a Super Bowl last season, but they have been a consistent contender for the past five years.
The Bengals are trying to get there. What they need to realize is they can't get there with Johnson.