Posted: 7:45 p.m.
If there are two guys who are savoring the chance to play Sunday, it is the Bengals' battered but proud bookend tackles.
Right tackle Willie Anderson because he thought he couldn't play for at least another month with his tattered knee and foot. Left tackle Levi Jones because he didn't know if the coaches would give him a chance to redeem himself after the worst game of his life.
"Let's face it," Jones said after Thursday's practice, "some people don't get that."
For the last two months Jones warred publicly with the coaches to convince them he was healthy in an effort to get back into the lineup after missing nearly a year with a knee injury. He finally played the bulk of the third game and all of the fourth.
But when Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen beat him for 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble of Carson Palmer in last Sunday's first 17 minutes, Jones was back on the bench and wondering if he would be iced for good.
"That was the first thing I thought," said Jones, who went to head coach Marvin Lewis and told him not to spare him in the team meetings. "For once I was like, 'They've got every right.' I'm thankful that's not the direction they decided to go in."
Anderson is thankful to a higher power.
Anderson "They said it's up to me to play with the pain," Anderson said. "I think God put me in a position to come back early for a reason. I really believe this week is the start of something special for me and this team."
After injuring his knee on the last offensive play of the Seattle game, then playing only the first three snaps of the New England game with the torn ligament in his foot also balking, and then ending his 116-game consecutive streak against Kansas City, the fear was Anderson wouldn't be back for the Nov. 11 game in Baltimore, never mind the Oct. 28 game against Pittsburgh.
But Game No. 179 for Anderson comes against a formidable pass rusher from last season in Jets outside linebacker Bryan Thomas, an 8.5-sacker with just half a sack this season. The reason Anderson bowed out is that the injuries prevented him from playing like a four-time Pro Bowler as he openly worried, "I'm going to get somebody killed."
"I think I'm needed to come back and for me to play at that level," Anderson said. "I don't know how it's going to be. Do I plan on playing at a high level from here on out? I do."
His first break since Jan. 2, 2000, on top of the bye week, seems to have invigorated him. For what seems to be the first time in a few years he practiced both Wednesday and Thursday this week, even if it's in limited fashion.
After the pounding of 12 years, Anderson will only say "I'm all right ... no one is 100 percent," but he also credits his gnawing feeling of awkwardness to getting him back quicker than people thought.
When he escaped to Atlanta last weekend to continue his rehab, Anderson was appalled that his friends wanted to gather at his house and have a certified get-together to watch the game, the first regular-season game he hadn't attended since he was drafted in 1996.
It would have to be watched in solitude.
"To watch those guys out there fighting, it felt awkward for me," Anderson said. "Those guys are out there fighting, I can't be a part of it, so that probably helped my healing, too. Everybody thought I'd be out for a month, now I'm back after the first week and ready to get this thing started up again."
The heat the club is taking for re-signing Anderson and Jones on the eve of the 2006 season isn't sitting well with the fiercely proud pair. They are scheduled to collect a combined $40 million from 2006-2008 with critics raging that at 31 Anderson was too old and at 27 Jones was too brittle.
Some see it as perfect 20-20 hindsight. The deals were done before Jones suffered a second knee injury (the first one was complicated by donating his body to the first playoff run of 2003 when he had arthroscopic surgery) and before Anderson aggravated the ligament in his foot. Anderson had bounced back from a career-threatening microfracture knee surgery after the 2004 season to post one of his strongest years in the 2005 AFC North title season. And, still, he hobbled last year to another Pro Bowl that included shutouts of Julius Peppers, Derrick Burgess and Aaron Smith in that Season of Cortisone.
The two have endured a lot of physical pain for this offensive line, which has protected Carson Palmer well enough in his first 50 NFL starts to put up numbers rivaling Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, even in context of the last three games.
JonesWhile some wonder if Jones' second knee problem has irrevocably affected his signature athleticism, he has been insisting he's been healthy for two months. Grateful for redemption, Jones also thinks part of his technique problems can be traced to not being put in the lineup earlier.
"All that confusion and all that distraction is coming from the fact that I know I need these technical issues and technical kinks to be worked out during that period of time to get right for the season," Jones said. "Naturally I'm not going to be on point when I do get in there. I'm not going to have all the ingredients for the recipe. I'm just going to try and throw it together."
But if Jones and Lewis have been arguing over the groceries, Jones also appreciates Lewis' gesture on Monday when he declined to show Jones' blowups against Allen during the team critique.
"I went to him to let him know that I needed that to help me out," Jones said. "That it's not fair to my other teammates not to show that. I understand why he didn't do it. I've been struggling this preseason, this regular season and I understand that's part of it. I just let him know I needed to see that under that circumstance.
"I appreciated the thought. That says a lot about him. It's just my psyche, I needed to see that."
It's only 20 short games or so ago that Jones had such a good season against several of the NFL's top pass rushers that he was named a Pro Bowl alternate. That's what he's seeking as he looks at film of the Allen incident.
The 310-pound acrobatic Jones has, at times, adopted the 340-pound mashing style of his backup, Andrew Whitworth.
"I got caught up in things that I don't do," Jones said. "I got caught up in trying to transform into Whitworth, a bigger guy with a different style.
"Over my career, any time I am struggling, it leads back to the same thing: Not playing my game."
Sunday is a big game for a lot of reasons. The Bengals have to get back to their game, and much of it relies on Anderson and Jones, the guys that would like to show that these $40 million bookends are valued property and not antiques.
"Not only as an effective player," Anderson said, "but as a leader."
At this point, it begins to sound like the commercial.
Proven protection for a franchise quarterback?
Leadership at 1-4?