Johnson's deactivation just latest chapter for team turmoil

No Chad Johnson.

Team sources said Johnson was benched by Bengals coach Marvin Lewis on Thursday for a violation that "involved a team meeting." Thus, no Johnson in Bengals vs. Steelers.

It is another slice of the Bengals/Johnson spectacle. Johnson was a distraction throughout the offseason, demanded a trade, nursed injuries and missed vital work. He is averaging 9.3 yards per catch; his career average entering this season was 15.0. He has only four touchdown catches.

Lewis told me via telephone on Wednesday afternoon before deactivating Johnson: "Sometimes it's hard to tell, but I think Chad understands. He has not had a very good year. His offseason program was not good. Being in shape was an issue. Players sometimes forget. In his best years, Chad worked hard. This guy outworked everybody. You take that and his natural ability and he's the best. Many of our players have to understand that -- when you quit overachieving, you struggle."

There are ocho-cinco reasons why the Bengals are stuck in futility this season. A huge problem -- counting on players like Johnson who cannot be counted on.

There is more.

Injuries have sapped this team, starting with quarterback Carson Palmer (elbow), out against Pittsburgh, his seventh start missed this season. Injuries to promising rookie linebacker Keith Rivers and veteran safety Dexter Jackson, among others, have dented the defense. In fact, the Bengals will play the Steelers missing nine injured players and five of those starters. Rookie left tackle (Anthony Collins, who was not even active last week vs. Philadelphia) and a left guard in Nate Livings will make their first NFL starts against Pittsburgh.

The Bengals offense ranks 32nd (last) in yards gained per game (242.6) and ranks 31st in points scored per game (13.8). The Bengals have scored 138 points this season. Compare that to the league-leading Giants, who have easily more than doubled the Bengals' output (292).

Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Palmer and has thrown five touchdown passes and six interceptions. The Bengals arrive in Pittsburgh with a minus-4 in turnover differential.

Those are obvious reasons for the Bengals ills. But always with them, there is so much more undercover. The communication, agreement and cohesion from management to coach to player is not strong. The unity in purpose is not clear. The players taking ownership of this team and perfecting consistent top-notch effort is lacking.

"We've got some guys who have a 30-second mindset," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They get it. For 30 seconds. Then it's on to something else. We have had too many guys pick and choose when they are going to work on a play. Some actually think they are smart enough to pick and choose. It's an attitude adjustment. We need a difference."

  -- Anonymous 
 Bengals player 

Subtract the starting quarterback from any NFL team and struggles will arise. But the Bengals players see how New England handled the loss of Tom Brady and wonder why they have collapsed without Palmer? New England is showing it can be done. Why not the Bengals?

A Bengals player answered, requesting anonymity: "Everywhere you go in this league things are run differently. That is the million-dollar question -- what is wrong with us? It didn't just happen. Things have been going on here for awhile. We had one good season here three years ago and some people did not know how to handle that success. We all can do more. Yes, the head coach can do more. But sometimes his hands are tied behind his back by ownership. And sometimes if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything. The wind is blowing? So what, still do it your way. At some point you have to do it your way, and have no regrets."

Lewis brashly benching Johnson might be a step in that direction.

This dance between ownership and coach, between Bengals owner Mike Brown and Lewis, is an odd one. Brown declined comment.

It is clear that Brown makes final personnel decisions (see the comeback trail of Bengals receiver Chris Henry). It is clear that Brown makes final financial decisions. It is clear that Brown has signed Lewis through the 2010 season. It is clear that Brown will likely not eat the millions due Lewis and dump him after this season.

What is unclear is what the future holds for both. For the Bengals.

"It's not a shock to say that we have to make some changes for the future for me to remain here," Lewis said.

The start was promising.

Lewis arrived in Cincinnati in 2003 having proved he was one of the game's most creative and effective defensive coordinators. The Bengals were 2-14 in the season prior to his arrival.

Lewis went 8-8 in each of his first two seasons. In the third, in 2005, his team was 11-5, AFC North champions and lost in the playoffs to eventual Super Bowl winner Pittsburgh. Lewis became the central voice and face of the franchise. But that began to change after the Bengals were 8-8 and 7-9 in the following seasons.

And now here they are 1-8-1. Losers of four games by eight or fewer points. Seeking a rebound from a 13-13 tie at home against Philadelphia four days ago. Looking for retribution after the Steelers hammered them 38-10 in Cincinnati four games ago. Pittsburgh has won four straight in the series. Lewis is 3-9, including the playoff loss, vs. Pittsburgh.

"This is a chance for us to bridge the gap against Pittsburgh," Lewis said. "Put a stamp on our play and put a stop to the way it has gone against them. With some of our injuries, we will have to change the way we play. Rally. Find a way to win."

Pittsburgh is No. 1 in the league in total defense, rushing defense and pass defense. It had seven sacks vs. Cincinnati in the first meeting. The Bengals just allowed eight to Philadelphia.

Maybe the Bengals will run the ball and run it more and punt and play field position in their final six games. Maybe T.J. Houshmandzadeh can become the offensive spark.

Houshmandzadeh is averaging 9.9 yards per catch. His career average before this season was 11.8. Johnson hurt the Bengals already slim chances against Pittsburgh. Many of his teammates have always found him amusing. Not one of them can find a hint of funny in Johnson getting himself benched fewer than nine hours before kickoff.

The Bengals need a better start and finish in games. The Bengals are being spanked 44-20 in the first quarter of games and 101-32 in final quarters. They need a more confident and sure-handed approach on offense with the infusion of more big plays.

They need clarity in direction.

"I want us to finish playing our best football," Lewis said. "I hope to avoid the struggles that we can avoid in the offseason. We've got to get some things straightened out. This way, it's just too hard."

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