Anderson, mates vow he's back

Posted: 10:10 p.m.

Andrew Whitworth called him a legend and rock star.

Carson Palmer called him "Everybody's big brother who will whip your butt."

Paul Alexander called him the best right tackle of his generation.

But when four-time Pro Bowler Willie Anderson returned to the Bengals for the first time this season Wednesday after dealing with family business, they didn't call him the starter.

And head coach Marvin Lewis said the 181 career games notwithstanding, they will have to pass judgment as people wonder if he'll regain the spot he held for 11 years of first-of-the-month dependability until last season's knee injury stopped his skein of seven years without missing a start.

But if Anderson was angry, he hid it with the fierce pride of a man who has heard too many whispers about his age. On Wednesday, he mused about "the talk show people, the radio show people," that said, "I was all done."

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Anderson

In his more reflective moments, Anderson reminds the naysayers that it was only in 2006 that he blanked two of the NFL's top sackers in Julius Peppers and Derrick Burgess.

Alexander, the only offensive line coach he's had here, is leaving the depth chart talk to Lewis. But long before Anderson was voted to the Pro Bowl, Alexander was saying he was the best in the game.

"Yes," said Alexander of this all-decade team, "if Jonathan Ogden is the left tackle, Willie is the right."

There are, of course, two years left in the decade.

"I just came to show people I can still walk," Anderson said with a smile.

Anderson's teammates were saying he could do a lot more than that after Wednesday's voluntary session he backed up Stacy Andrews. After Palmer watched Anderson clear out cornerback Johnathan Joseph into a crowd of coaches on the sideline on an outside run, he said it was as healthy as he's seen Anderson in the last two years.

"He's healthy enough to be 300 and whatever he is to run full speed to block a guy that is 180 pounds and twice as quick as he is," Palmer said. "It's very good for everybody."

But that was one of the few definitive moments on a day full of questions.

Lewis wasn't offering many clues, but seemed to be saying the best right tackle in Bengals history would have to earn his job back after a couple of tough seasons of injuries have reduced his practice and play time..

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Lewis

"Willie wants to be a starter; he's been a great player," Lewis said. "He maybe didn't get the recognition until recently, but I think he's been that kind of player for a long time. He wants the opportunity to get back where he belongs. We have to make a judgment on him doing it. We have a lot of faith in Willie."

Lewis has made it clear that Andrews is going to start somewhere along the line after the Bengals made him the franchise player this offseason, a $7.5 million tag for '08 if the two sides don't agree to a multiyear deal by July 15.

As he has been throughout his career, Anderson was the locker-room diplomat.

"It's going to be an up-in-the-air decision," he said. "It's in my mind right now that Stacy is going to be in the first group. We'll see what happens."

There is no public read from the Bengals on whether they would move Andrews to guard to make way for Anderson if he returns to form/health.

Or if they would be content to pay Anderson his $3 million salary as a backup.

Or if Anderson would even want to be a backup.

Anderson, who turns 33 next month, didn't sound it Wednesday when he said he would only quit when he embarrassed himself and/or "got somebody else hurt," a point he doesn't see himself reaching until he's 35 or 36.

He has clearly grown weary of people inside and outside the organization saying he's done. He called out one reporter Wednesday for writing it last year and he still can't believe the Bengals.com message boards ripping him to shreds.

It got him thinking back to the 21-year-old Willie Anderson backing up the veteran Joe Walter in 1996.

"I'm at the age now where Joe Walter was about two years older than I am now," Anderson said. "I thought Joe was the oldest person I'd ever seen. But I saw the enthusiasm Joe had. I'm at the age now where talk comes about. 'Can he walk without a walker?'

"My job is to show my growl is still loud. Last year (the talk was) Social Security.

"(2007) was the first year in a while that my credibility was tested. It shocked you a little bit but a lot of things can't shock you in the league. Everybody is replaceable. People criticized Carson last season so if Carson got criticized last season no one on the team is shielded from it."

Anderson has been insisting ever since last December that he could have played sooner than the Bengals allowed last year with the knee injury he suffered in Week 3 and kept him sidelined until the last two games.

He apparently made some points the past two days. He passed his physical Tuesday and on Wednesday the 23-year-old Joseph said Anderson looked like a tight end roaring out at him.

Just ask Palmer.

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Palmer

"He knows the fans, he knows the organization; he knows what it takes to win," Palmer said. "When you're in the middle of a game and you can always look at him ... he's played in so many games and he's played Reggie White to Simeon Rice and anybody you can name and blocked them up and down the field. Knowing when you've got guys like Dwight Freeney and Michael Strahan, you've got 150 percent confidence in him he's going to shut them down.

"Being a quarterback, you know that side of the line is good. Especially when he's got Stacy inside him or Whit inside him. ... Just talking to him you can feel how bad he wants to win, how much he deserves to win. He's been through so much here. You get excited thinking about the season and him hopefully playing 16 games."

That apparently is the Bengals' biggest concern. Not only game time, but practice time. Anderson says it shouldn't be. Last year, he feels, was an aberration. He didn't know what was wrong with his foot until late summer, he says, and the knee injury was a separate issue that is since healed.

He injured the foot, by the way, in warmups leading up to that Dec. 10, 2006 game against the Raiders where he blanked Burgess.

"Last year I didn't know what was wrong with my foot. It took me about a year or two to understand what things I need to do physically. I'm at the age now I don't have to run 10 100-yard wind sprints to get in shape," he said. "That comes from talking to guys around the league. I've got friends that played 14, 15 years as offensive linemen. You learn different things. I'm not going to do the same things that these young kids do.

"I did that in '05 when I had my microfracture knee surgery. I did it again in '06 and both were Pro Bowl seasons. Those were years I didn't go out and kill myself in the offseason and pound and pound and pound. I was able to play at a high level with the same injuries I've got now."

Anderson certainly showed he's healthy for the locker room. Joseph said you could hear "the hooting and hollering" when Anderson arrived Tuesday.

"He's like a legend. He's like a rock star when he comes into this locker room," said Whitworth, the second-year offensive lineman who kept in touch with Anderson throughout the offseason. "He loves this team He loves this town and he must love this locker room because we love him back. Guys pick up their step when he gets around them."

Palmer and Anderson talked in the last few weeks, when Anderson couldn't get to the voluntary workouts because of what he called family issues.

"You know he's working out five days a week, doing his Pilates with his trainers, doing the stairmaster, taking care of himself," Palmer said.

Anderson hopes the naysayers are listening.

He laughed when told Joseph said he looked like a tight end on the move.

"I'm just showing I can do a little jog and trot every now and then," he said.

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