This winter was no different for Melissa Whitworth, the ninth one her husband has been in the NFL. Even with three children three years and younger and one on the way, sometimes the 32-year-old kid is more of a handful.
“He just starts bouncing off the walls every February and March,” says the former Miss Louisiana of the pageantry of the offseason. “He just has to be around football. I tell him to get out of the house and find something to do.”
With the Bengals set to take the field for the first time this season in Tuesday’s opening practice of the voluntary on-field workouts, Andrew Whitworth is back where he belongs after two painful seasons. He’s happy, healthy, and re-energized at his Pro Bowl position of left tackle, where he’s the anchor of an offensive line that new coordinator Hue Jackson is pledging to be the heart of his playbook written in the punishing, up-tempo prose Whitworth breathes.
“I’ve got a lot to prove. I’ve been injured for a couple of years fighting through this knee thing. I think I finally got it licked,” Whitworth says. “I feel really good about it. I feel back to where I want to feel.
“(Jackson’s style) is the kind of offense I enjoy. Some tackles enjoy how pretty their pass set is. I like to get after people and playing real physical football. People who know me know I love playing with tempo. I take pride in my conditioning level. It matches what I like to do. I like to make guys tired and make them have to think if they want to keep going. It fits well with me. I understand it.”
Even though Whitworth is the third oldest of profootballfocus.com’s top ten best players of 2013 (guard Evan Mathis has him by 41 days and Peyton Manning is 38), he wants to play at least five more seasons. When he signed his last extension through 2015, he told the Bengals one of his goals is to get another one.
“I love football. I love being around it. I love the competition,” Whitworth says. “Why not keep playing? Why not keep helping mentor young guys to be better players and men? Just to be around the family. These guys are my family. I see the Brown family and the Bengals as my family. They’ve provided for me and my house and I feel like I’ve tried to reciprocate as much as possible.”
Whitworth has a sense that Jackson is going to bring him back to Whitworth to his roots when he made the move to left tackle in 2009. With quarterback Carson Palmer coming off his second season-ending injury in four years, the directive from head coach Marvin Lewis came down to protect Palmer at any cost and that meant emphasizing the running game. The concept translated into the AFC North title in 2009 before it died on the vine in 2010.
“Let’s be honest,” Whitworth recalls. “In ‘09 and ’10 when I got moved to left tackle it was to be a running football team that got after people and played off play action. That’s when I kind of made my ascent and people started to recognize me. Because that’s what I love to do. And I tried to make that point when I moved inside (last year), that you’re actually involved in the running game at guard.
“I just have to get involved. In this offense I think I’ll be very involved in the run game,” Whitworth says. “I think it’s going to be similar (to ’09) in that sense that we’ll try and smash-mouth people. I’m not saying we’re not going to throw it. We’ll throw it plenty. But when we run it, we’re going to run it violently and that’s the goal.”
Whitworth’s huge contribution to a locker room culture that has undergone such a massive facelift in the last three seasons (From T.O. to O.T.) tends to overshadow his value on the field. Until last season’s opener, he had started 64 straight games at left tackle and when his knee problems finally took him out of two games and
If his knee bounces back the way he thinks and he starts all 16 games in 2014 and 2015, he’ll have played in 152 games, the seventh most of any offensive lineman in Bengals history. Only Hall-of-Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz (185), perennial Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson (181) and Super Bowl right tackle Joe Walter (166) have played more as primarily tackles.
ALL-TIME GAMES PLAYED BY BENGALS O-LINEMEN
Anthony Munoz, T, 1980-92 _ 185
Willie Anderson, T, 1996-2007 _ 181
Bruce Kozerski, C-G, 1984-95 _ 172
Joe Walter, T, 1985-97 _ 166
Max Montoya G, 1979-89 _ 157
Bob Johnson, C, 1968-77 _ 154
Rich Braham, C-G, 1994-2006 _ 146
Dave Lapham, G-G-T, 1974-83 _ 140
Andrew Whitworth, T-G, 2006- _ 120
Vernon Holland, T, 1971-79 _ 119
Rufus Mayes, T, 1970-78 _ 110
Bruce Reimers, G, 1984-91 _ 108
Whitworth admits he’s relieved he’s returning to tackle, where he loves the comfort level. He knows the techniques and the opponents.
“One thing that’s always going to be in my favor is technically playing the game and understanding the game mentally is something I’ve always been on the front side of,” Whitworth says. “If you go by the scouts and the people who break down the game, I’ve never been athletic or talented enough to play this position, apparently. For a guy playing late in his career, football intelligence and technique of playing the game is most important.”
If it sounds like Whitworth is still grinding an ax over his second-round selection out of LSU in 2006 because of the perception he wasn’t athletic enough to fend off NFL rushers and that he could only play guard, he is. It is still driving him all these years after a Pro Bowl and four post-season berths as a left tackle.
He was all set to get the fire lit again if the Bengals drafted a tackle. He says in some ways he was a bit surprised they didn’t take one, but it doesn’t matter.
“Every single year after the season I’m one of those people that you have to talk off the ledge,” Whitworth says. “That’s what drives me. The feeling of not being able to make it. Every single year my mentality is I have to earn my spot. They’re always out to replace you with the next best thing. You always have to be the next big thing.”
With the Bengals trying to re-sign the young core of their team, it makes your head hurt trying to figure out where Whitworth would fit in the salary cap. Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, also 32, just signed a five-year, $51.3 million contract.
But he isn’t thinking about such matters just yet.
“I’ve only got one goal and that’s to get this team to the Super Bowl and win it,” Whitworth says. “Really, I’m not concerned with anything else.”
It is that young core that Whitworth is banking on. He thinks getting to the playoffs three straight years has obscured the fact it is still a youthful team finding its way.
“We have to play well in big situations. We did better in some situations last year, but it’s not consistently enough,’ he says. “This team still has things to learn in that regard. The nucleus of this team is pretty young. They’re only in their third and fourth years. They’ll get better and better. When these guys hit the peak of their careers at six, seven, eight years, this team has a real chance to be contenders for years to come.”
Those are his kids. And so are these his kids: the three-year-old Lockout Twins (Drew and Sarah) and two-year-old Michael. No. 4 is due in early November (“Our first in-season baby,” Melissa says) and so it has to be asked. Where does he line up if it is a Game Day baby?
“We’ll be playing,” Whitworth says with a laugh. “We’re not too worried about it. We’ll handle it as it comes. It depends on the scenario. If it’s a dangerous situation, you have to think about your priorities. If everything is OK and everyone is healthy, maybe it’s a different answer. I’ll handle it when it comes. As a man and as a father, you do what you feel is right and it doesn’t matter what other opinions are.”
Melissa Whitworth sounds as anchored as the Bengals left tackle.
“Believe me, with what we’ve been through, we’d be just fine,” she says. “We’d come through it no matter the situation. We’ll be fine no matter what.”
Sounds like she could line up at guard or tackle.