Lake Forest, Ill. — He wasn't looking for sympathy, but if Cedric Benson needs a shoulder to lean on, Larry Johnson would probably offer one.
Johnson waited his turn in Kansas City and replaced a popular running back, just as Benson did with the Chicago Bears.
"When I came in, everybody was anti-Larry Johnson," Johnson said. "You kind of had to win the crowd over as far as your play because any mistakes you did, they would have pointed out, 'That's why we didn't need him here.' As soon as I had the opportunity, I seized it. And it made more sense where people were like, 'OK, it seems like a smart move by the organization bringing Larry Johnson in."'
Johnson replaced Priest Holmes and developed into one of the game's best running backs. Benson is getting his opportunity now that Thomas Jones is with the New York Jets, although the early reviews were not good.
He carried 19 times for 42 yards and fumbled once as the Bears dropped the season opener at San Diego, 14-3, and that came after a sluggish preseason. Of course, it's extremely early.
And a good outing against Kansas City at Soldier Field on Sunday would be a step toward erasing the doubts.
Benson shrugged off the San Diego game, saying, "It was Week 1 against a really good run-defense team. It was good for us. It gave us a chance to see the areas we really need to improve on. We can only get better."
The perception is that Benson got the job because of his potential more than his previous production, that management is taking a leap of faith and trying to justify a high draft pick. If he produces, there will be a safe landing. Otherwise, there could be a loud thud.
Then again, the running game needed time to develop last season.
Chicago rushed for 89 yards or less in three of the first six games, including 38 at Arizona in Week 6. The Bears rallied from a 20-point deficit to win by a point that night, and the running game got going afterward.
Jones ran for 1,210 yards. Benson got stronger as the year went on and finished with 647 yards, averaging 4.1 per carry.
Management then delivered on a promise it had made to Jones and traded him in the offseason, a risky move but one it deemed necessary. Jones and Benson had a chilly relationship at best and both probably would have been unhappy sharing the load this season. So the Bears handed off to someone who has shown glimpses of brilliance but has been hurt every year since being taken fourth in the 2005 draft.
Benson also has rubbed teammates the wrong way at times. But the Bears were quick to rush to his defense after Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips called him soft in a radio interview this week, saying trash talk and a few hits can rattle him. That's ironic considering one of the main knocks on Benson is that he absorbs too much contact and needs to add a little finesse to his game.
"I see myself cut back, make some moves in the open field," Benson said.
And teammates see a running back who is anything but soft.
Quarterback Rex Grossman pointed out that Houston safety Glenn Earl suffered a broken ankle when Benson ran him over in the preseason. Center Olin Kreutz fired back at San Diego, saying, "They won their first game, you would think they were Super Bowl champs the way they run their mouths."
And offensive coordinator Ron Turner said the Bears "did a lot of good things in the running game against San Diego," even though they ran for just 80 yards.
If Benson falters, the other options at the moment are Adrian Peterson and rookie Garrett Wolfe. In other words, the Bears need him to produce.
Not too long ago, Johnson was in a similar spot. He had 20 carries as a rookie in 2003 and 140 in all his first two seasons - 84 fewer than Benson. Then, he ran for 1,750 yards in 2005 and 1,789 last year.
"I can understand and sympathize with what he had to go through," Johnson said. "When his opportunity came, he had to take full advantage of it."