No question about it.
Andrew Whitworth had MVP numbers. When a left tackle doesn't give up a sack in 16 games where six come in the rough-and-tumble AFC North and the offense leaps in a single year from 18th to sixth in rushing, the only question is who got the most second-place votes.
But in his ninth season Whitworth became the Bengals.com MVP for 2014 because of his priceless leadership. During the 2008 season Whitworth and other core veterans helped change the culture of a locker room burdened with off-field problems and on-field underachievement and forged five post-season berths in six years.
Now Whitworth was at the forefront of new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's crusade to transform the mentality of the offense and give it a physical identity. In order to do it he needed offensive line coach Paul Alexander's unit on board and Alexander's best player.
"His style changed," Alexander says of the evolution of the season. "He was more aggressive than he has been in the past and that usually comes from handing the ball off more. The more you hand it off, the more aggressive those guys become. I think it was a good match for him."
Jackson and Alexander didn't have to ask Whitworth twice and everybody else scrambled behind. The recipe helped lift the Bengals to 5-2 finish, but wasn't good enough to overcome fourth-quarter turnovers against Pittsburgh in both games or the devastating injuries at the skill positions in the Wild Card Game in Indianapolis. But Whitworth saw enough to be heartened for '15.
"The real important thing in the NFL is to be the most physical team on the field. I definitely was all for that. Hue Jackson is all about that. So is Coach (Marvin) Lewis," Whitworth says. "That was something I really took to heart this year and tried to make an example every week on the field. We ran out of weapons. At some point you have to have your best players on the field and have them healthy. You look at the teams that are still playing. They have some of their best players and (other) guys who really rose to the occasion…At the end of the day we ran out of weapons. I really felt like we were playing the style of ball that could carry us into this time of year."
But his effort to help the Bengals establish the run still couldn't overshadow his dominance protecting the passer. Despite turning 33 two days before the Bengals put up 30 points in a division road game, Whitworth became Alexander's first left tackle in his 20 seasons coaching the line to post a sack-less season.
According to profootballfocus.com, no starter in the NFL did that this year while he the web site credited him with allowing just a staggering nine quarterback pressures. The next best was Browns left tackle Joe Thomas with 17.
Domination. And it resulted in the biggest Pro Bowl rip-off since, well, when Whitworth didn't go three years ago.
"Sensational," Alexander says. "(Going sack-less) is not a common occurrence. The big thing, of course, is he was healthy. But he keeps getting better. He's smarter. He figures it out. He's just so savvy and really studies hard. He understands players. He cares about the games. He's an outstanding leader. He's everything you could ask for. You couldn't ask for anything more."
Whitworth shut out double-digit sack guys like Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (12) and Denver's DeMarcus Ware (10), but he couldn't isolate any one of them for being the toughest to block.
"I don't think there's anybody in the league that blocks one-on-one more than me. If there is, it's only a few," Whitworth says. "I get the challenge every week being one-on-one blocking people without much help. Everybody is a challenge because at that position you can make one mistake and give up a sack. We played against DeMarcus and Von Miller, the best 1-2 tandem other than Suggs and (Elvis) Dumervil and we shut out both those groups and that was definitely huge."
In 2013 Whitworth played two positions and 14 games despite a nagging knee injury and he admits he still doesn't know if he did the right thing by playing and not sitting out the season. But he knows this is the best he's felt in years. He says he has already started cross training with his beloved golf, a little basketball, and workouts.
And the season has been barely two weeks done.
"It's the earliest I've ever started it," Whitworth says. "I just feel good. I'm healthy…I'm excited about our future in Cincinnati. I'm happy with the season. I did something pretty special and not done very often, but I'm even more excited about our future as a team."
Whitworth has one year left on his deal, but it certainly looks like he can keep playing. He wonders how many 33-year-old left tackles have pitched a year-long shutout.
He says the reason he's getting better is because he picks out one part of his game each offseason and tries to make it better. He hopes his team follows him on that score, too.
"I think we're a tough team. I think we're a physical team, but I think we need to get even more physical and even more tougher," Whitworth says. "I don't think my abilities or talent has kept me in the game this long or playing this well late in my career…The key to that is every year I've challenged myself to see how I can get better and that's what we need from all our guys."
Whitworth puts himself in that category, too. He knows Suggs and Dumervil and Ware and Miller are right around the corner.