- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

The Cleveland Browns are on the rise in the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers remain winners. The Baltimore Ravens have a fresh start with fresh-faced coach John Harbaugh.

And then there are the troubled Cincinnati Bengals.

Right end Justin Smith, middle linebacker Landon Johnson and free safety Madieu Williams all departed as free agents in March.

The team cut third receiver Chris Henry on April 3 after his umpteenth run-in with the law.

And the franchise’s best-known player, Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson, has told the Bengals he wants out, a demand they have no intention of granting because it would entail an $8.03 million salary cap hit and because Johnson is a key component of their high-octane offense.

Other than that, 2008 has been fun for the Bengals, who lost in the wild card round in the 2005 season in their only playoff appearance since 1990 and are 15-17 since.

Johnson has stayed away from offseason workouts for the first time in his seven seasons, upset at the direction of the franchise and practically begging to be traded to a winning team.

A lot of people who really had affection for Chad now see him in a different light, said coach Marvin Lewis, who has put up with Ocho Cinco’s antics for five years. Every time somebody gets a new contract, you’re not the highest-paid. Chad has a contract [through 2010 with a team option for 2011]. He’s being paid a lot of money. The things he has said about winning playoff games, those are our goals. You have to own up to it and do it. Hopefully he’ll come back and be very competitive and have an accomplished season. If he shows and does things and does [them] the right way, I’m willing to take the bullets for him again.

Johnson had said he would show up and embarrass everybody that tries to cover me, but he now is threatening not to report at all this season.

Henry no longer will embarrass the Bengals. His four arrests from December 2005 to June 2006 prompted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend him for half of 2007. But Henry didn’t learn his lesson. He received a fine for driving with expired plates last month. Days later, he was charged with misdemeanor assault and criminal damaging. The Bengals released him even before the allegation surfaced that Henry caused a recent fight at a Cincinnati-area nightclub along with two teammates.

All of that makes receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh — who last year had 112 catches for 1,143 yards and 12 touchdowns — a sterling citizen for merely staying away from Cincinnati for a second straight offseason to work out on his own at home in California.

Unlike Johnson, Houshmandzadeh isn’t a head case. An extension of his contract, which expires after this season, is a priority given Johnson’s shaky status and a defense that’s diminished even with the signing of pass rushing end Antwan Odom.

However, even if Johnson behaves and Houshmandzadeh re-ups, the Bengals appear no closer to complete the renaissance Lewis seemed to have them on the verge of after winning the AFC North in 2005.

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