Bobbie Williams is the only member of the current starting offensive line to be in the same position as last season. (Bengals photo)
Posted: 5:50 a.m.
When right guard Bobbie Williams broke out of the Bengals' strange-looking huddle Tuesday, he found himself in the middle of the biggest overhaul on the offensive line in a decade.
He looked to his right and there were zero NFL games in the person of rookie Andre Smith. In fact, Tuesday marked the first time the kid had ever put his right hand on the ground.
Williams looked to his left and there was center Kyle Cook with not only zero NFL starts, but no NFL snaps.
But Williams, now in his sixth Bengals season and 10th in the NFL, didn't get the feeling he was sprawled in a deck chair on the Titanic. Indeed, the last remnant of the 2005 offensive line that blocked for Carson Palmer's triple-digit passer-rating and the Bengals double-digit winning division title sounded more than comfortable.
"It was interesting. It was different. But I didn't feel like I was in a bad place," Williams said after the Bengals' first voluntary workout of the spring. "Kyle was spitting out the defenses and I like hearing that. As for Andre, he can definitely move. I'm interested in seeing the full bloom. He's a bud. He listens. He's not coming in here as a know-it-all."
What everyone now knows is that after seven seasons of mainly Willie Anderson at right tackle and Levi Jones at left, the Bengals are deeply committed to a tackle tandem of Smith on the right and Andrew Whitworth on the left. Head coach Marvin Lewis said that's the way it's going to be for as long as he's here.
They could have left Whitworth at left guard, where he has made 25 of his 38 NFL starts, and Anthony Collins at left tackle, a second-year player who held up in his first six games at the end of last season.
But the Bengals chose to have Collins backing up both Whitworth and Collins (he took snaps as the second left tackle Tuesday) because they have confidence in Whitworth after watching him make 13 starts at left tackle and they believe the 6-4, 340-pound Smith is a prototypical NFL right tackle.
"We're looking for the best five guys," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
Smith admitted it felt strange working on the right side for the first time in his life. But for a 22-year-old guy who seems so befuddled in his personal life (reports had him changing agents for a second time in a month Tuesday), he sounds like an old head when it comes to football.
"I'm a team player. I see it as an opportunity to being more valuable to my team not being able to play left tackle but also play right," he said. "Bobbie and Whit are coaching me the entire time. They're teaching me a lot as far as hand placement, how to shoot my hands and bow my hips. Hit him low."
In his brief time with the Bengals, Smith has displayed a way with words and he did it again Tuesday as he talked about the enjoyment of being on the field for the first time with the full offensive team.
"It was fun. Just the style of play. The communication that goes on across the line," Smith said. "My high school coach has a saying: '(It is) like all women chattering.' You know how that sounds? That's how it sounds coming across the line."
Then Cook must have been the chief magpie, and this is no small fact in how this line has unfolded. As much as the Bengals liked Eric Ghiaciuc's athleticism and felt his strength and power were underrated, they were never really enamored at his ability to communicate to the rest of the line. On Tuesday, no one downgraded Ghiaciuc, a player good enough to continue to start in the NFL and will in Kansas City.
Instead, they preferred to talk about Cook's strengths.
"He was real verbal; he's real aggressive," Williams said of Cook's first day. "Kyle has been around. He just doesn't have any experience in games. He was chirping out the calls out there. I like hearing that.
"Any type of success starts up front. If you're not on the same page, it can look like backyard football. It can get ugly fast."
Such as it was last year when the Bengals gave up their most sacks (51) in nine years for the NFL's lowest-ranked offense. And it was communication that Cook emphasized Tuesday.
The 6-3, 305-pounder has been in the Bengals system for two years since they picked him off waivers his rookie year from the Vikings just before the '07 season. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander thought Cook was on the verge of playing last year until his season-ending broken toe during warmups before the Dallas game.
A free agent out of Michigan State, Cook, the Bengals feel, lost his shot to get drafted his senior year when an ankle injury cut down on the athleticism he has shown since he arrived.
"I feel very comfortable. We had a good day out there. We came out talking and getting the right calls down, across the board," Cook said. "All five guys together on the same page. That's the biggest thing. If you've got five guys, six guys with the tight end that can communicate, work together, and come off the ball in union ... look at the good teams. New England, places like that where guys have meshed together and worked as one."
Alexander likes Cook's size and strength, which he says is good enough to block the AFC North nose tackles. Whitworth joked that Cook is the only member of the line that didn't play in the SEC, but he doesn't think that will hold him back.
"We'll let him be a Big 10 stand-in," Whitworth said before he got serious. "He's got toughness. He's a solid center. He's big enough to play the position. He's strong enough. He's a tough guy. He's a hard-nosed guy. You saw that in the preseason when he got to play a lot. He's nasty. He's all over the field cutting people. He brings an attitude to win."
Alexander also likes Cook's brains, and Cook flashed some of the smarts as he discussed how the Bengals have expanded their outside zone running scheme to match the line's athleticism.
"We're not just all big double-team blockers, but we still do have that in our arsenal," Cook said. "We have a lot of athletic guys. Look at Whitworth. Bobbie has been here a long time and you've got Smith coning in. We've got a lot of guys who are able to get up and get on top of linebackers.
"We're going to try to stretch the backers and mess with them a little bit. Give them the flow and give them different looks in the backfield with the tight ends. Kind of add another notch to our game."
Translation: The Bengals like how their running backs are good at following tracks to the outside and then cutting back when they choose their hole.
It's that kind of athleticism that quarterback Carson Palmer sees in the 6-7, 340-pound Whitworth and why he doesn't mind him playing left tackle. Palmer thinks Whitworth could play anywhere but quarterback ("His arm is very suspect") and he wouldn't play him at fullback "because you just don't want to waste that good of a player on a position that's not on the field all the time," he said.
It's no surprise that Palmer is comfortable with Whitworth on his blind side. Playing 10 games at left tackle as a rookie in '06, Whitworth helped Palmer reach the Pro Bowl in a season the Bengals blew the playoffs by a game. After that and giving up one sack in his 52-game career at LSU, why do the critics still hammer Whitworth on speed rushers?
Probably because of that '06 image of Colts Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney beating him up with his double-edged sword of a huge lead and even bigger crowd in Indianapolis' now defunct RCA Dome.
"Five best players. Get the best players on the field. You want your left tackle to be one of your best players and that's where I'm really excited to do it," Whitworth said. "Other than one bad game my rookie year, I played all the guys you need to be the best. It's not going to be about them. It's going to be about me and my technique, and the work I put in."
Palmer is convinced. He predicts Whitworth is going to play at a Pro Bowl level.
He'll have to. Not since left guard Rich Braham moved to center and the Bengals signed veteran guards Matt O'Dwyer and Brian DeMarco in 1999 have the Bengals jostled a line so much in the offseason. But all those guys had played at least 40 games in the NFL by then. Not so Cook and Smith. And left guard Nate Livings has only played in six.
"It's not that inexperienced of a group," Palmer said. "Because you've got guys like Bobbie and Whit to lead the way. You couldn't ask for more vocal, better leaders ... guys that just grab guys under their wing and just show them the way. I wouldn't say experience is something we're going to lack just because of the attitude of those two guys."
And Williams points out that Smith is going to have another double-digit guy next to him much of the time in 11-year tight end Reggie Kelly.
Williams says he sees Smith like "a big brother" would. The day after the draft, he spent time watching film with Smith when he was at Paul Brown Stadium for his introductory news conference.
"I think he's going to be OK because I think he wants to be good. He wants to show why they drafted him," Williams said. "He listens. He's humble. I'm going to help him every day and every way I know how."
Williams will also be helping Cook and he seems already to be helped by the camaraderie that has developed with the line since the March 30 start of offseason workouts. Many of the new faces, like right tackle Dennis Roland and centers Digger Bujnoch, Andrew Crummey and Evan Mathis, arrived during last season and have had plenty of time around each other. During their off days, Whitworth has rounded up guys like Bujnoch, Roland and center Dan Santucci for regular rounds of golf. Mathis and Crummey have also been seen holding court on various subjects, ranging from the political to the golf.
Whitworth doesn't take chemistry lightly when it comes to the heavy guys.
"A hungry offensive line to me is better than a talented one," he said. "A lot of teams have proved they can win with a bunch of guys that haven't played much and just want to get out there and fight and crawl and scratch. Right now we have a lot of guys that have a lot to prove, whatever it is. We have a lot to prove and we've got a lot of guys hungry to do it. I'm happy with whom we've got and we've got a lot of talent also. We'll see where we go from here."
The Bengals will end up wherever they go.