If there's a calendar somewhere in Cincinnati's lockerroom, promoting a game against former teammates, then Sunday is one. Perhaps the most prominent. During the offseason, defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins, departed Cincinnati for Tampa Bay.
"They were great guys for us and they were guys who grew up here and helped us and did a lot of great things here,'' Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday. "We were happy for them and I think that's why the NFL system is so good — guys have an opportunity to test the market and see what happens. Both guys chose to move on and we would have loved to have had them back here. When they were with us, they busted their tails.''
When the Bengals were faced with a deadline to extend franchise players last year, Cincinnati offered Michael Johnson a five-year deal worth $40 million. Johnson said no and the deadline had passed allowing franchise players to sign contract extensions. The belief is that Cincinnati added another year to Johnson's final offer, scratched out his name and handed it to Carlos Dunlap... which he signed. Johnson played his final season in Cincinnati on a one-year deal worth $11.175 million.
Johnson posted a career-high 56 tackles during his final season in Cincinnati, adding nine passes defensed (mostly all batted at the line of scrimmage), two forced fumbles and an interception -- his third consecutive season with a pick. His quarterback sacks (3.5) were significantly down but he was as disruptive as Carlos Dunlap when factoring hurries and hits (Johnson had 61, Dunlap had 69). Additionally, Johnson was also rated as the team's top run defender, scoring a Pro Football Focus score of +16.3 against the run.
Tampa Bay signed Johnson to a five-year deal worth $43.75 million with $18 million guaranteed, a $4 million roster bonus in 2014 and 2015 with a growing base salary in the final three years of his deal. Unfortunately Johnson has struggled during his first season with the Buccaneers, with only 3.5 quarterback sacks and 17 quarterback disruptions. PFF has generated a negative grade for Johnson, from his overall (-11.9) to his pass rush (-8.2) and run defense (-4.3). Injuries, especially an ankle, have accounted immensely for his decline this season.
A former third-round pick, Johnson was a model example toward self-improvement over the years. His off-seasons started to become off-season fodder when he'd arrive at camp noticeably more muscular with greater flexibility (due to a yoga program in '13) and less fat. Since being a rookie in 2009, Johnson has steadily improved to eventually give Cincinnati's defensive line a mention as one of the best in the NFL.
Even though he left, those relationships are still close.
Former Bengals right end Michael Johnson plays his former mates this week, but they remain very tight. He’s still on the D-line’s group text, so he knows when they’re in meetings and they know when he’s in meetings. On Wednesday’s conference call with the Cincinnati media he compared the Bucs’ 2-9 season to the Bengals’ 10-game losing streak in 2010.
"They're my brothers and going to work with them every day, it was fun. It didn't feel like a job," Johnson said via Bengals.com. "We had fun every day, especially on Sundays. We had a special group there and I’ll always have very fond memories of our time there."
His relationship with Dunlap has always been strong.
Yet Johnson is not a man about money. The valedictorian of the Dallas County High School Class of 2005, graduate of Georgia Tech, and exhaustive community leader, is thinking of teaming up with Dunlap again to train for a few weeks in South Florida. Inspired by Johnson’s community work, Dunlap has been all over the calendar and Cincinnati with his burgeoning foundation this season in his absence.
"I was so happy to see him doing that. I can tell he was headed in that direction when I was there because he was getting more involved," Johnson said. "Playing football, yeah, that’s our job, that’s what we love to do, but we’re put in a position to be role models and have the influence we have in our communities and especially young people’s lives.
Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, rated as the third-best tackle in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus grades, will work with Johnson -- just like they used to in practice.
"There's nothing he can't do. He's big and strong and athletic and had a great motor," Andrew Whitworth said. "There I think they rotate some, but we know from here the guy can play 90-some percent of the snaps just fine. So he's always going to be in great shape. A guy you have a lot of respect for."
Anthony Collins, drafted by the Bengals in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL draft, joined Johnson in Tampa Bay, signing a five-year deal worth $30 million with $9 million guaranteed.
Due to the numbers and contract that Collins eventually signed, it was believed that Cincinnati was out. However, reports surfaced prior to his decision that Cincinnati and the Carolina Panthers were in the mix. The belief is that if Collins stayed in Cincinnati, it would have moved Andrew Whitworth to left guard... perhaps for the rest of his career.
Like Johnson, Collins has struggled this season with Tampa Bay, allowing a quarterback sack (not bad actually) and 28 quarterback disruptions. Collins, who started the final five games and seven total last year, didn't allow a quarterback sack during his final season in Cincinnati and only 14 quarterback disruptions on 389 pass blocks.