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Bengals have easy out if they lose their gamble with LJ

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Shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs suspended running back Larry Johnson for using a gay slur on his Twitter account and toward reporters, and ripping head coach Todd Haley publicly, some general managers and coaches I spoke with said "no way" when asked if they'd consider signing him if he became available.

Johnson's character issues were one thing. But the more prevalent sentiment was that Johnson's best years were behind him. The latter flaw seemed more condemning because teams will deal with problem children as long as they can produce.

La Canfora: LJ could see action
Just days after signing with the Bengals, Larry Johnson could see significant playing time on Sunday against Oakland. Jason La Canfora reports that injured starter Cedric Benson is a likely scratch. More ...

Johnson was cut, and the Cincinnati Bengals signed him this week for the remainder of the season. The reactions were widespread. Some thought it was a typical move by the Father Flanagan of NFL franchises. Others believe Johnson could help, especially with depth after Cedric Benson suffered a hip injury. There were the obvious concerns that Benson could start looking over his shoulder or that Johnson's insertion into a pretty solid locker room could disrupt the special thing the AFC North-leading Bengals have going.

Benson, from people I've talked to, isn't insecure. If he is worried about Johnson creeping up on him, that should keep him playing at a high level. Johnson could allow the Bengals to use sets they haven't before, which could work to their advantage if they were to play Pittsburgh a third time in the playoffs. He could also provide short-yardage help to ease some of the wear and tear on Benson, maybe flash some of the old LJ.

As far as disrupting the locker room, I spoke with one of his former teammates this week who said Johnson's issues rarely permeated through Kansas City's locker room. Once he left the building was another thing, but in terms of being a good teammate, this player said Johnson was fine.

Many believe the Benals are risking ruining a good thing. But here's why adding Johnson is a low-risk move by the Bengals: If Johnson shows his age -- he turned 30 on Thursday -- or acts a fool, the Bengals can cut him with little financial penalty. It's as simple as that.

To help keep Johnson grounded, coach Marvin Lewis, who normally isn't as willing to take on problematic players as much as owner Mike Brown, isn't exposing Johnson to the national media. Lewis has made it clear that Johnson won't be a newsworthy story and that he's simply a backup player working to be active on game days. If Johnson is newsworthy for any other reason than showing he's still a productive player, he will have shown himself the door out of the NFL.

Young's Titanic impact

By nature of the position he plays, Titans center Kevin Mawae has a slightly more intimate relationship with his quarterback than most players. Plus, he's one of the more astute statesmen on most subjects NFL, especially since he's also president of the players union.

I figured he'd be the perfect person to give me the real lowdown on why the Titans have ripped off three straight victories since Vince Young was inserted into the starting lineup after an 0-6 start with Kerry Collins as the starter.

Wade Payne / Associated Press
The Titans' offense has become more dynamic since Vince Young became the starting quarterback.

"The biggest thing that Vince brings to the offense is the ability to run the ball," Mawae said. "You have a quarterback that's mobile and a running back (Chris Johnson) that can take it to the house at any given time, and that's a serious double threat. If you put a man on Chris all day long, you leave Vince exposed to run. If you assign a spy on the quarterback, you will suffer the consequences of possibly being in one-on-one situations with Chris Johnson.

"That's a dynamic we didn't have with Kerry, because Kerry is going to sit in the pocket."

Mawae also acknowledged that getting benched last year taught Young about being a professional.

"A year and some games sitting behind Kerry and seeing how Kerry handled success, it humbled him a bit. That's what you've seen from Vince," Mawae said. "He's taken a far more professional approach to the game. He's understanding the 'why's' of doing things instead of just doing things. When you understand why we're running a play or a certain type of offense, it really helps you prepare and realize what we're doing."

Young is also taking more shots downfield in the passing game, which has pulled defensive backs to depths that have opened up space between the second and third levels of the defense. In turn, that's eased the crowding near the line of scrimmage and allowed Johnson to rush for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns that last three weeks.

As far as Johnson's outburst, Mawae said he's just as impressed as everyone who's watched him or who has him on their fantasy team.

"You can't replicate the speed that he has, especially on our outside zone stuff," said Mawae of Johnson, who leads the league with 1,091 rushing yards (6.4 average) and eight touchdowns. "We know if he can get past the second level and get one-on-one with the safety, he's got a good chance of doing something special. We haven't been doing anything different up front, maybe holding blocks a little longer and our communication has gotten better.

"We just know that, while some teams say, 'This is the one play that could be the play,' with him, every play could be that one play. He's taking 4 and 5 yards and turning them into 20- and 30-yard gains and taking 20- and 30-yard gains and making them 60-yard plays."

Russell's last stand?

Raiders coach Tom Cable's decision to bench quarterback JaMarcus Russell, presumably for the rest of the season, is not a good sign for the quarterback, who appears to be on the same fast track out of the NFL as Akili Smith was. Russell, the first-overall pick of the 2007 draft, was given more than his share of chances to get it together, and the fact that he never got it and was replaced by Bruce Gradkowski has proven to a lot of folks that he simply must not want it.

Despite the lack of production, his questionable work ethic, and constant battles with his conditioning were problematic issues, even at this point of the season when he'd been prodded by a previous benching, among other things. Cable certainly must have gauged the temperature in the locker room and felt that other players weren't feeling Russell and that their livelihoods were being short-changed by someone who wasn't putting as much into things as they were.

Now we'll really see if Russell understands what it takes to play in the NFL. By all appearances, Young used his demotion last season to make himself a better man and a better player. In fact, if I had a suggestion for Russell, it would be to give VY a call and get some first-hand advice about learning that longevity is not entitled, but earned.

Freeman's turn

That Buccaneers rookie quarterback Josh Freeman has performed as well as he has in his two starts (30-59, 401 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) even has the Tampa Bay coaching staff somewhat surprised. From the time he was drafted, there was no intention of playing him this season. He took limited reps in OTAs, minicamps, training camp, and in the team's first seven games (all losses).

Josh Freeman , QB
Buccaneers

Stats in two starts
Comp/Att: 30/59
Yards: 401
TD/INT: 4/2

The ineffective play of Josh Johnson -- whose strong play in training camp and preseason led to the trade of Luke McCown to Jacksonville and his insertion as the starter after veteran Byron Leftwich faltered -- forced the accelerated move to get Freeman ready during the Bucs' bye week.

"It was good that he always knew he had to prepare for that opportunity," Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "We kind of thought it was going to be Luke and Byron and those two guys would play throughout the season. For him to be the starter, that was not the initial plan going into it.

"He sees the field very well. That's the one thing you're waiting to see because you never really rush him live in practice. He sits in the pocket, and with a young quarterback, you always worry that they'll flee quickly. But he's shown that he'll take shots. He's got a pretty good internal clock and knows when to escape. His pocket presence will be very good, and his field vision has been good for a rookie."

Unlike fellow rookies Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, who took an abundance of snaps from the moment they arrived in New York (Jets) and Detroit, Freeman only began getting typical starters practice reps three weeks ago. As a result, the playbook has been scaled back. Olson said there are a lot of things Freeman needs to improve upon, like his propensity to fumble snaps, but that's something the OC believes Freeman will improve upon quickly.

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Week 11 picks

Wyche's Winners: Giants over Falcons; Colts defeat Ravens; Dallas defeats Washington; Detroit beats Cleveland for win No. 2; Steelers over Chiefs; Packers beat 49ers; Jacksonville spoils Perry Fewell's Buffalo debut; Vikings roll Seahawks; Saints stay unbeaten with win over Bucs; Chargers edge the Broncos; Patriots mash the Jets; Bengals get by Oakland; Eagles win in Chicago; Texans end Titans' run.

Upset of the week: Rams over Arizona.

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