As I touched on earlier Sunday after Michael Johnson signed back with the Bengals, the move cemented a deliberate trend by the Cincinnati Bengals. That trend? Bringing in talented, reliable guys who fans can rally behind because of their character.
Unfortunately, national media members who are obsessed with Tom Brady, the Manning brothers and all things large-market, fail to do their due diligence when researching an under-the-radar team like the Bengals. They've made four straight playoff tournaments, yet what some of the talking heads prefer to point to is the stigma of player arrests that occurred almost a decade ago. They hang onto that perception even though the team has curbed that type of behavior, and it was evident that the stereotype still existed when everyone predicted the Bengals to bring in troubled, but talented end, Greg Hardy. "The Bengals have no problem with low character players", they'd say.
Michael Johnson and Bengals' management say otherwise. They went with comfort, reliability and character, to go with talent. Now, that's not to say that Hardy won't join Cincinnati, but it would have to be on a whale of a deal and the possibility dwindled into near nothingness when Johnson inked his deal.
In December of 2013, I went to go watch the Cincinnati Bengals take on the San Diego Chargers in Southern California. There was a small army who accompanied me on the two-day trip and we had a heck of a time. Though seemingly creepy, we stayed at and hung out in the lobby of the hotel that the Bengals team was at. Most of the players and coaches were cordial, but a couple really stood out.
My older brother, who is responsible for me becoming a Bengals fan, has a son who is going to be nine years old in a few months. Being seven at the time, my nephew had started to grab his own affinity for football and the orange-and-black. He had a couple of favorites, but wasn't quite old enough to make the trip, so we promised him autographs, stories, etc.
On Saturday evening, we saw Johnson cruising through the lobby and decided to go say hello. As intimidating as it might be going up to a 6'7", 280 pound guy, the defensive end couldn't have been any nicer. We mobbed him for a picture and chatted a little bit, telling him that he was an outstanding player. True to Johnson's humble nature, he was gracious and modest, which is a stark contrast to so many professional athletes.
By chance, my brother was talking to my nephew on the phone, describing what was going on at the hotel and who we were seeing. When he told my nephew that I was grabbing a picture with Johnson, he said "oh, let me see!". Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, my brother put his son on "Facetime" and was able to see what was happening.
Johnson, sensing what was happening with my brother's phone, smiled and said to him something to the effect of "let me see the phone". Earlier in the conversation, my brother noted that Johnson was one of his son's favorite players. The usually low-key, borderline-shy Johnson started a short conversation via "Facetime" with my nephew.
"What's up, little man?," I recall Johnson asking him. They chatted for a minute or two and all of us got that mushy feeling when we saw the little guy grin from ear-to-ear (some teeth might have been missing) when chatting with one of his favorite Bengals players. That visual of his face in the top-corner box of my brother's phone when talking with Johnson will be burned into my memory for a long time.
Michael Johnson might not have been at the top of some fans' free agency wish lists. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game while he was previously in Cincinnati, so some are skeptical as to the overall effect that he'll have on the team. On the field, he'll definitely aid in the run defense by providing the ability for the Bengals to be better at pressuring the quarterback due to the employment of the rotation, along with Johnson's own prowess as a pass-rusher.
Off-the-field and in the locker room the team will also feel his impact just as heavily. Michael Johnson: good football player, great guy.