Big deal for Big Willie means more than big money

Updated: 8 p.m.



The Bengals bowed to tradition while breaking it Thursday when locker-room icon and community leader Willie Anderson became the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL with a five-year contract extension that keeps him in Cincinnati through 2011.

In eschewing their concern for aging players, the Bengals honored one of the franchise's greatest careers because it is still ongoing at age 31 with three straight Pro Bowl appearances, 96 consecutive starts, and a priceless reservoir of respect from his teammates, coaches and city.

Anderson would be in his 16th season on that final year and would tie the Bengals' longevity record set by another Anderson, Ken, the club's all-time passer in records set from 1971-86. It also comes six years after the club made Willie the highest paid offensive linemen ever at the time with a six-year, $30.6 million deal at age 24.

"They said, 'You're playing at a high level and we feel you can play that way for the next five years,' " said Anderson, who indicated he signed the deal just before boarding a team bus for Friday's preseason finale in Indianapolis. "It makes me humble and it touches my spirit. I'm relieved and very humbled at the same time."

Anderson wouldn't confirm the reported numbers of a $32 million total package for about a $5.7 million average, half of which is paid in the next two years and $20 million of which comes in the next three years. It puts a good distance between Anderson and Colts right tackle Ryan Diem and the Giants' Kareem McKenzie, each at about a $5.1 million average.

But this deal is about more than money. When it became apparent on Wednesday a deal would be done, Anderson let left tackle Levi Jones and quarterback Carson Palmer in on the secret.

"Carson said, 'You know how rare that is now for a guy to be in the same place for 15, 16 years?' " Anderson recounted. "He's right. It's something I wanted to do here. I grew up here."

The extension followed the same framework as Palmer's six-year extension of last December that ignited this offseason bonanza that has seen the front office dole out more than $60 million in bonuses alone in order to keep key figures on one of the league's best offenses.

"Carson did his thing the way he did so they could sign more guys," said Anderson, alluding to the NFL salary cap set at $102 million this year. "Over the first three years they're paying me like a left tackle and that's what I was looking for. I know they're trying to build a team. I told them I didn't want to get to be 35, 36 and kill them with a big contract, so I was just concerned about the first three years.

"Take (left tackle) Jonathan Ogden. He's really only Baltimore's top offensive linemen. Here, we've got top guys all the way across."

It's believed the Bengals are just one of about 10 teams scheduled to dish out more money in bonuses and salary in 2006 than the $102 million cap, otherwise known as cash over cap.

Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the lead negotiator, along with husband Troy Blackburn, director of business development, and Bengals president Mike Brown don't like the cash over cap theory, but they have done it to lock up the men surrounding Palmer scheduled to become free agents after the season: fullback Jeremi Johnson, right guard Bobbie Williams, left tackle Levi Jones, and now Anderson. Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson also got an extension even though is deal didn't end for four more years.

And, throw in the new five-year deal that head coach Marvin Lewis received after Brown ripped up his old deal in wake of the Bengals winning the AFC North title last season, and the proceeds of Paul Brown Stadium's streak of 27 straight sellouts are staying home.

The $102 million is all but spoken for, save for the pad left for injured players that still counts against the cap. So the shop is most likely closed until late in the season, if then.

Anderson, clearly rankled when Johnson got an extension so far in advance back in April, admitted Thursday he didn't think at times it would get done. But he was heartened when the club approached him shortly after the Jones deal was consummated just before training camp. Negotiations have been ongoing since, culminating with agent Terry Bolar's arrival Friday in Cincinnati.

"I've been an advocate for this team and always have been," Anderson said. "I would tell any free-agent looking at this team in the new era of Marvin, Mr. Brown, Katie and Troy that they care about winning and they take care of their players."



The deal comes on the heels of last month's six-year extension for his partner at left tackle, Jones, which totals $40 million as the Bengals make sure they locked up their bookend tackles after locking up Palmer. Anderson and Jones were the linchpins of Palmer's pass protection that allowed him to get sacked the fewest times of any other regular quarterback except Peyton Manning last season on the way to his first Pro Bowl.

With Jones now the NFL's fourth highest-paid left tackle and Anderson already the second highest paid right tackle before Thursday, it's going to be hard for the Bengals to sign left guard Eric Steinbach to an elite deal. But they have locked up three-fifths of what is viewed as one of the top units in the NFL and the Bengals' best line since Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz anchored the 1988 run to the AFC championship.

Last season the unit was the backbone of Palmer's top passing season in club history, running back Rudi Johnson's top rushing season in club history and Chad Johnson's third straight AFC receiving yardage title that also set the Bengals season record.

On Thursday, Anderson tipped his hat to the one man who has been with the Bengals longer, center Rich Braham, in the last year of his contract and perhaps career after joining Muñoz, kicker Jim Breech, and tackle Joe Walter as 13-year Bengals.

"I'm grateful for a guy like Richie who has been so good for so many years," Anderson said. "He's a big reason guys like myself, Levi, Bobbie and Steinbach can go out and do what we do."

Anderson, who overcame microfracture knee surgery last year in the offseason, has said for years that he feels like he can play until 36 and he said Thursday he believes he can play out the entire contract. That would put him in a tie with Ken Anderson for the most Bengals seasons with 16, one more than cornerback Ken Riley and two more than linebacker Reggie Williams. His 158 games are 27 games shy of Muñoz's 185, which is fifth on the club's all-time list.

"I've got a long way to go. I know it's a lot of money to give someone 31 years old but look at how I worked and responded back when I signed that deal when I was 24," said Anderson, who has gone to great lengths with personal training during his offseasons in Atlanta and here during the season to tone a body he's keeping between 330-340 pounds.

"I'm not going to get into specifics, but they've given me things in this contract that haven't been done in the Marvin era. He knows who I am and what I'm about and he trusts me. For that I'm grateful and I'm going to go out there and bust my butt for him."

Just before Anderson got on the bus, he said Brown met with him and told him how much he appreciated him as more than a football player.

"I know he comes off as not talking very much to guys, but we talk and I go into his office to talk to him about things," Anderson said. "I'll never forget the letter he wrote me when I made it to my first Pro Bowl. He wrote one to Chad, too, and I think he was happy for us because we hadn't been there before and we had made it in the new era and I think that meant a lot to him. That letter meant a lot to me."

On Thursday, they wrote each other back.

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