3-9-04, 8:20 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For all but four games over the past four seasons, Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson's right-hand man has been Mike Goff.
He'll have a new right guard come the mid-May mini camp with Goff now a Charger, and while Anderson is going to miss the subtleties that defined their communication on the line of scrimmage he is confident the spot can be filled by the right guy.
"A mauler," Anderson said Monday night. "That's all we need. A guy who is willing to do the grunt work, a guy who is going to go out there and get dirty and sweaty and grind away at it. That's all blocking is."
He'll miss Goff's talent and experience, but he thinks it will take just a minicamp to get timed up with his new right guard. He's not sure if center Rich Braham could have been replaced this season. He knows Goff is a loss, but he also knows Braham handles the complex array of calls at the line and he was relieved when he heard that Braham came back from his recruiting visit over the weekend to sign a one-year deal.
"No question that last year Richie was our most valuable guy on the offensive line," Anderson said Monday night. "I knew we were going to get it done because I talked to Marvin (Lewis) at the end-of-season meetings he had with every guy and he said we had to get Richie back. But I talked to (Braham) a couple of days before he signed just to see how he was doing and when he told me he was going to New York (to visit the Giants), I got nervous."
Now Anderson is relieved enough to be thinking how he can help the Bengals fit some more bodies under the salary cap. Because lowering a cap number usually involves some sort of up-front money, getting a contract re-structured is also a nice perk as well as a nice help. Scheduled to make $3.3 million this year, Anderson says he's more than willing to re-negotiate and come in at a lower number in '04.
But the more immediate challenge is getting used to a new tag-team partner. By the end of the season, Anderson thought he and Goff were one of the NFL's best duos at
combination, or double-team, blocking. But Anderson laughed when asked how long it is going to take to get used to a new neighbor. Carson Palmer may be the ninth starting quarterback Anderson is going to play in front of since he arrived via the draft's 10th pick in 1996. But there was a time when he played next to a spot that was almost as fluid.
In '97 and '98, the Bengals tried to install Ken Blackman at right guard, but injuries derailed his career to the point they had to rush the rookie Goff in there towards the end of '98. Then in 1999 it was two veteran free agents in Brian DeMarco and Jay Leeuwenburg. Then Goff got the nod by 2000, but even in the last minicamp and training camp there was a change when they put Matt O'Dwyer at right guard and tried Goff at center.
But that ended after the opener, and the rotation of Goff and O'Dwyer at right guard ended with O'Dwyer's holding penalty in the fourth quarter of the fourth game of the season. And Anderson really needed that bye week after the fifth game.
"The bye week was the key week for the offensive line because we had the time to work on everything," Anderson said. "Matt did things differently than Mike, and Mike I weren't on the same page after he spent training camp at center. But Paul (offensive line coach Alexander) did a great job that week getting us back into a groove. That's all it's going to take, really. A lot of repetition."
Anderson thinks the two in-house candidates to replace Goff, fourth-year Victor Leyva and second-year Scott Kooistra, are capable. He thinks Leyva could have done it last year and Kooistra, "has that mentality to knock over guys.
"But starting is a whole different thing compared to backing up," Anderson said. "We talk to everybody, and joke around at practice. But with the five guys who are in there all the time, we're always talking to each other and talking about what the defense is doing. It takes time."
For instance, Anderson always appreciated it when he and Goff came to the line from the huddle, and Goff would let Anderson know the play again in case he didn't hear it. Or, if Anderson simply said the word, "Mike," Goff knew to look for a new blitzer, a stunt, or any other kind of wrinkle. And, Goff would do the same for Anderson.
But neither guy had to do what Braham does every snap.
"It's just so big that Carson is going to have Richie there," Anderson said. "Ask Jon Kitna. As smart and as good a quarterback as he is, he'll tell you there were times Richie saved him at the line after he made the wrong call on who to block. I mean, Carson is going to need that guy against Baltimore on third-and-15 who can anticipate which linebacker is coming and let everyone else on the line know and do it all in 15 seconds."
Anderson watched the Jets' Kevin Mawae and the Broncos' Tom Nalen center the AFC line at the Pro Bowl and they reminded him of Braham and how well they communicated with not only everybody on the offensive line, but the people around them.
"A quarterback and a center may have the closest relationship on a team next to the quarterback and the quarterbacks coach," Anderson said. "Sometimes when you hear Kit and Braham talk, it's almost like listening to guys game planning. And the line coach and the center are always talking, too. To have guys like Richie and Paul who have been doing it for so long is really big."
Anderson knows it's going to take some time to replace Goff, but he also feels the Bengals are on the verge of being an elite offensive line because of the consistency in the middle, and the youth on the left side with third-year tackle Levi Jones and second-year guard Eric Steinbach.
"We've got four spots back and we've still got the guys who are hungry and just want to block. Who just want to play," Anderson said. "Playing together and just getting down into it and wanting to be the best is about all takes to be a dominant offensive line."