Let's hop in the "way-back machine", shall we? In 1977, the Cincinnati Bengals were in the market for a thumper at running back. They had good athletes on both sides of the ball, highlighted by the speedy wide receiver, Isaac Curtis. Paul Brown thought hat they had solved this problem years ago with the drafting of the NCAA's only (still to this day) two-time Heisman Trophy winner in Ohio State's Archie Griffin.
To say that Griffin ended up being a bust is putting it mildly. It wasn't entirely his fault though, as he was forced to share the load of carries throughout most of his career. Even so, Brown and the staff felt the need to spend a second round pick on another back from Ohio State--Pete Johnson. The big, bad Buckeye looked like a bull donning tiger stripes at six feet tall and 252 pounds.
The plan was to use Johnson as a goal line back to pound it into the end zone. And, for the most part, Johnson was successful at doing so. During his seven seasons with Cincinnati, Johnson rushed for 5,421 yards and an eye-popping 64 touchdowns. That included two seasons of 14 touchdowns and another with 12.
After putting up some of these numbers, Johnson began to get a bit of a big head. In the offseason preceding the 1984 campaign, Johnson was asking for a new contract from the Bengals and threatened to walk out and play for the now-defunct USFL if he didn't get his way. While the Bengals were set in their familiar stringent stance on caving in to player demands, they may have had more of a right to do so then at first blush. You see, Johnson was busted for cocaine use before the 1983 season began and was suspended four games.
Meanwhile, on the beautiful west coast city of San Diego, the Chargers were having some problems with one of their own running backs. The Bolts were knee-deep in the "Air Coryell" craze, which was a bombs-away offense, led by future Hall of Fame quarterback, Dan Fouts. A young, productive running back by the name of James Brooks began to feel unappreciated and underutilized after the 1983 season. After all, the former first round pick out of Auburn led the NFL in all-purpose yards his first two years in the league (1981 and 1982).
Though their statures and playing styles were completely different, Brooks and Johnson shared a similar disposition with their respective clubs. A trade was consummated on May 29th, 1984 for the Chargers and Bengals to swap their angry running backs.
Now, when you first look at this trade, it may be hard to call it such a good deal because the Bengals traded a very productive player in Johnson. However, it's the careers of both players after the trade was finalized that truly determined what a great deal that the Bengals received.
First of all, Brooks was 25 years old when he was acquired by Cincinnati, while Johnson was 30. In today's NFL, there isn't much of a market for 30-year old running backs, so to trade away a player that is far younger at the position has to be noted. It was in those extra five years that Brooks really made the Bengals coaching staff smile with his productivity.
The first indication that the Bengals struck gold with the deal is that Brooks played eight productive seasons in Cincinnati after the trade, while Johnson only played three games with the Chargers. THREE GAMES. He was then shipped to Miami for the remainder of the 1984 season and then was done in the NFL. In that final season, Johnson averaged 2.35 yards per carry between the Chargers and the Dolphins.
As for the stats, there is a major disconnect as well. In his Bengals career, Johnson had a 3.9 yards per carry average through his seven seasons. In his nine seasons, Brooks topped him by almost a whole yard on average at 4.8. That 4.8 included three seasons where Brooks had over five yards per carry, which is a major rarity in the NFL. He also topped Johnson's rushing yardage mark with the club by over 1,000 yards. "So?," you ask? "He's supposed to do that with a year more with the club," you say? Brooks achieved that feat on 58 less carries than Johnson during his Bengals career.
While Johnson had 70 touchdowns with the Bengals (64 rushing, six receiving), Brooks came just shy of that with 64 combined scores (37 rushing, 27 receiving). It's that versatility and effectiveness in the passing game that made Brooks deadly. Outside of Boomer Esiason and Anthony Munoz, Brooks was the most valuable player that the Bengals had in the mini dynasty of the late 1980s/early 1990s. Brooks had 124 more total receptions than Johnson (297 to 173) and outgained him in that department by 1,685 yards (3,012 to 1,327).
In case I lost you with all of those above-mentioned stats, here is what is important to remember after the trade took place: Brooks had 9,459 all-purpose yards, 64 touchdowns, three Pro Bowl Berths and eight seasons with the club. Johnson had 212 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns in his one season after leaving Cincinnati. Oh, and let's not forget the Bengals leaning heavily on Brooks in their 1998 run to the AFC tile.