Cincinnati Bengals: Best running backs in team history, No. 4

Cincinnati Bengals. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport
Cincinnati Bengals. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport /

We arrive at No. 4 in our look at the best running backs in the franchise history of the Cincinnati Bengals. Who takes this spot?

Training camp is nearing quickly for the Cincinnati Bengals and the rest of the NFL. However, we still have a few weeks until that time comes. Thus, we’ve spent some of our time on history around the league.

Subsequently, we’ve begun looking through the best players to ever play for the Bengals organization since its inception in 1968. We started with the quarterbacks, now it’s been onto the ball-carriers.

We’ve already discussed the No. 5 running back in team history (as well as some other interesting names who didn’t make the top five). Today, we look at No. 4.

4. Pete Johnson

The fullback position may be nothing more than a fleeting memory for much of the NFL’s team-building philosophies today, but for much of the league’s history it was a staple of just about every offensive scheme. The run game was long the backbone of any team’s offensive plans, and whether it be through their blocking, short-yardage skills, or ability to finish a long drive with a plow-through touchdown, fullbacks were a key to making an attack effective.

Pete Johnson may not be a household name, but his time as Cincinnati’s fullback were a testament to how important and impact that position used to have. Johnson played seven seasons for Cincinnati, playing at least nine games (including eight-plus starts) every year. It was a much different time for sure, because as a fullback, he was given at least 153 carries in each of those seasons — an impossible level of involvement in today’s NFL for the position (Mike Tolbert led all fullbacks with 66 carries in 2017, and no fullback has had even 100+ carries since Tolbert’s 101 in 2013).

That involvement came with mostly positive results. Though not the primary ball carrier, Johnson managed to turn his surprisingly high number of attempts into decent yardage. In his time with Cincinnati, he only picked up less than 600 yards rushing once — barely missing that mark with a total of 585. He ended up averaging 774 rushing yards per season across his Cincinnati days, even surpassing 1,000 yards on the ground once (1,077 in 1981).

That 1981 season ended up being his best professional season — and in part because of it, the franchise ended up having one of their most successful seasons in its history. On Johnson’s 274 carries (career-high), the team picked up 1,077 rushing yards (career-high) and 12 touchdown runs (tied second-most in career. Paired with that rushing success was Johnson’s most effective season catching passes as well: he set career highs in receptions (46), receiving yards (320), and receiving touchdowns (4).

His play helped Cincinnati end the year with the best record in the AFC (12-4) before eventually reaching the Super Bowl. While Cincinnati wouldn’t win that game, Johnson was integral to their playoff run as a whole. He picked up 45 yards and a touchdown in a 28-21 Divisional Round win over Buffalo, then 80 rushing yards and a touchdown in a 27-7 blowout of San Diego in the AFC Championship Game. In both that Championship Game and the Super Bowl, it was Johnson leading Cincinnati on the ground.

Next: NFL 2018: Ranking all 32 starting RBs

The biggest reason Johnson sits on this list, though, is on word: touchdowns. Johnson managed to garner 64 touchdowns on the ground in his seven seasons with Cincinnati. That blows away anyone else in Cincinnati history (the next closest has just 48), and only 43 players in league history have ever eclipsed that number. He had six or more rushing touchdowns in all but his rookie season, and made it to double-digits three separate years. His 12 in that 1981 season wasn’t even his best, by the way; in both 1979 and 1983, he picked up 14 rushing touchdowns.

Fullbacks may not often get their due, but you’ve gotta hand it to Johnson for managing to reach a productive height which few in league history can say they’ve surpassed.