Former Bengals, Returning Heroes

By Marc Hardin
Fox Sports Ohio/Bengals Insider
August 23rd, 2010

The Bengals like their own, and to thine own they are true.

When Cincinnati re-acquired former Bengals safety Marvin White on Sunday in the wake of Gibril Wilson’s season-ending knee injury Friday against Philadelphia, the team continued a recent pattern of bringing back former players in moments of emergency rather than take on other players who may not be as familiar with the Bengals’ system.

When undrafted rookie running back Cordera Eason got hurt and became sidelined for the season early during training camp in Georgetown, Ky., the team signed former Bengal halfback James Johnson, who has nine career carries for 29 yards in his NFL career, all with Cincinnati in 2008.

The Bengals chose Johnson over a host of other, more experienced and available tailbacks, including Justin Fargas, who may or may not be finished after seven seasons with Oakland. But the fact remains, Fargas, with 3,369 career rushing yards on 4.1 yards per carry, has been a full yard better, per carry, than Johnson in his NFL career. Yet, he was not in the Bengals’ plans. Fargas was signed by Denver just before the Broncos played Cincinnati on Aug. 15, five days after Johnson re-signed with the Bengals.

The day Johnson was signed. Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson talked about the positives of having Johnson back on the roster. Said Anderson: “He knows our offense and he’s experienced in what we do. At this stage, it’s a benefit to him and it’s a plus for us because he knows it, and it’s a short learning curve for him to catch up with what we’re doing offensively.”

There were a handful of superior halfbacks available when the Bengals went back to the well for Johnson. Anderson’s comments ring true about the positives yielded in a situation where a former player rejoins the team. But halfback is probably the one position on a football squad where a talented player unfamiliar with a system can come in and perform well while undergoing on-the-job training. See Larry Johnson last season for the Bengals.

Still, the Bengals went with the tailback they know, instead of tailbacks they don’t know. This player personnel dynamic has been a recently re-occurring theme under head coach Marvin Lewis.

White and Johnson are just the latest ex-Bengals to rejoin the team after leaving Cincinnati. White is the second former defensive back to return to the secondary in less than eight months. The Bengals gave cornerback Keiwan Ratliff a second chance when they signed him just before the playoffs, on January 4, after defensive tackle Pat Sims was placed on injured reserve. Ratliff didn’t stay long. He was released before the team got to training camp, on June 18.

Of course, it’s not news that NFL teams bring back former players when choices are involved. There are numerous examples of this occurring. On July 31, the New York Jets re-acquired receiver Laveranues Coles after Coles showed the Bengals next to nothing on the field in his one-year stay with the team last season. It’s Coles’ third stint with the Jets.

The Jets, like the Bengals, see the positives in bringing back a player who is familiar with the system, rather than signing perhaps a more talented player who has to absorb a new playbook.

When Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski touched on Johnson’s return, the coach talked about not having to “re-teach” the halfback the entire offense. “It’s always good when you have a player coming back to the team who is familiar with what you do,” the coach said.

When coach Lewis discussed the running game and how it performed against the Eagles on Friday, he may have been alluding to those nuances former players grasp when they re-join a team. Said Lewis: “Those two guys (backup halfbacks Cedric Peerman and James Johnson) are handling it well. They’re doing other things that you guys don’t see, that are most important to us.”