For the usually mild-mannered Andrew Whitworth, known as a gentle giant as one of the Bengals leaders in community hours, he felt he had no choice late in the third quarter when Jaguars defensive tackle John Henderson ripped his helmet off and then as Whitworth followed a 23-yard pass downfield, Henderson jumped him and began doing a Three Stooges on Whitworth with the eye pokes.
Slowly Whitworth turned and threw some punches, earning both an ejection and standing ovation from the Paul Brown Stadium crowd as he saluted them with both hands upraised on the walk to the locker room.
A punch usually draws a fine, but it still has to be reviewed by the NFL office and the Bengals to a man thought Whitworth had to do something, although head coach Marvin Lewis chided him for costing them a nearly 40-yard play. The pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh tacked on with the personal foul would have put the Bengals at the Jacksonville 27 with a 21-3 lead.
"I know they tell you not to retaliate," said running back Cedric Benson, "but sheesh, you're getting your eyes gouged out."
The Bengals saw trouble brewing on the previous play. In fact, left tackle Levi Jones said he told the ref that it was his fault because he didn't call anything on the play before it blew up.
"After a run play he came up and took a shot at the back of my head," Whitworth said. "Levi was screaming at the refs for a flag and when he stood up, he pushed me again in my facemask and the ref still didn't throw anything.
"So on the next play, he wanted me, I wanted him and he kind of swam me. I just pushed him past the quarterback and he fell to the ground, but he held onto my facemask and ripped my helmet off. I turned to go back to the play and the next thing I knew, I felt him grabbing at my eyeballs. From there, I just tried to get his hands off of me. I really didn't know what to do when someone's fingers are trying to dig into my eyes."
Whitworth is emerging not only as a locker-room leader but as a top player. He has now come out of tussles with Pro Bowlers Albert Haynesworth and Jason Tuck, and fairly well intact. Whitworth chalks up what happened with Henderson, another one of those big-time tackles, to frustration. The Jaguars had been holding teams to 108 yards per game on the ground and the Bengals punched back with 159. Whitworth was jazzed as the crowd cheered him into the locker room.
"It was a good feeling," he said. "I've had some good battles with Haynesworth and now Henderson and Tuck. The last one here was with Haynesworth and I think the crowd was behind me on that one."
Everyone but Lewis, who couldn't be.
"The hard thing there, and the thing that you have to do as a professional football player, is walk away," Lewis said. "There is no retaliation on an NFL football field. You have to walk away. Let him get the penalty; let him get kicked out of the game. It would be first down for us with the ball on their 20-yard line as opposed to third down. We didn't come out of that one very well."