Andrew Whitworth is nestled back home in the warmth of Louisiana this winter. And the knee surgery that plagued him this past season is starting to become a distant reminder rather than a daily occurrence.
"I'm starting to feel a lot better. I'm starting to feel a lot more explosion and I've got some fire in my knee back," Whitworth said Monday. "I tried to push it a little too hard and a little too fast."
Whitworth is feeling like his old self and that's where he'd like to play. With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson talking about committing to the run, Whitworth recalls how effective the Bengals were running over his spot at left tackle in 2009, their last top 10 NFL rushing performance.
"I'd prefer to play left tackle. I'm a long, lean-lever guy without thick arms or legs. I'm built to play tackle," Whitworth said. "I feel like that's where I'd like to stay. That's not a firm thing. It's just what I would prefer."
Whitworth says it's too early to delve into the issue. Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis have been saying the same thing when asked where Whitworth is going to play in 2014. That would indicate the Bengals have yet to decide what they're going to do with their Pro Bowl left tackle and the rest of their offensive line as other issues bubble.
Anthony Collins, who finished the season as the left tackle when Whitworth moved inside to play left guard for the injured Clint Boling, is a free agent. Boling is coming off late December ACL surgery and his timetable doesn't warrant a return early in training camp. Plus, Mike Pollak, who played well at both guard spots during the season, is also a free agent.
After Boling got hurt in the Dec. 1 win in San Diego, Whitworth addressed the coaches' concerns about compromising his chances for a second-straight Pro Bowl berth at left tackle and he played guard the rest of the way when he told the coaches he was willing to do it if they thought it was best for the team. Whitworth, who broke in with the Bengals as a guard in his rookie year of 2006, showed Pro Bowl physicality inside. He says he can be just as physical outside.
"I know this is a business and they have to do what they think is best for the future of the team and not for just one or two years," said Whitworth, who is signed through 2015. "I know I turn the big 33 this year (Dec. 12) … I feel like I can play tackle for a long time."
If Whitworth had to do it all over again, he says he wouldn't have played in the 2013 Pro Bowl and would have had the surgery to deal with bone spurs right after the season instead of waiting.
"I just wish I realized that until you truly get on the field, even though you feel good, the strength and stability is not quite there yet," Whitworth said. "I should have eased my way in. It's not anybody's fault. It's really my own. I rushed back and re-injured it."
It's amazing, really, that Whitworth only missed the opener (he missed the Oct. 31 game with an unrelated injury). He came oh so close to not playing a down in 2013. Whitworth says late in training camp there were wide-ranging discussions about his fate that included putting him on season-ending injured reserve. While the injury wasn't bad enough to shelve him it also prevented him from practicing "position specific" techniques.
When he gave up his first multiple sack game since his rookie year working against Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil in Baltimore last Nov. 10, Whitworth realized "my sets were awful. That's the thing that let me know that's what really hindered me being able to work on the technique things I needed to play the position."
"I was working on having strength in my leg and having balance," Whitworth said. "Was it better than 90 percent of the guys in the league? Yes. But I want to play great, not just good."
Whitworth likes the sound of Jackson's emphasis on being physical in the running game.
"In our offense under Jay (Gruden), we were more of a true pro style, West Coast, right-formation offense. Most of the things we did were run to the right. As a left tackle, you're not going to get involved in that kind of stuff," Whitworth said.
"So when I got in at left guard and got to pull and got involved, people got to see some of that. That's always been there. If I get that opportunity, I feel like anywhere I play, I could play center for God's sake (and be physical)."
GROUNDBREAKING: Whitworth, the Bengals representative to the NFL Players Association, said Monday he doesn't expect the locker room to have a problem with a gay teammate.
All-American Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, a consensus mid-round pick, is slated to become the NFL's first openly gay player after the May 8-10 draft. Sam disclosed his orientation in an interview with ESPN Sunday night.
"I have no question," Whitworth said when asked if the Bengals would welcome a gay player. "We have plenty of practice dealing with different personalities over the years. Being accepting of people is something that is special about our locker room and special about Cincinnati where we've created an environment where most guys are always accepted and we're worried about playing football.
"We have a family group. That's why we have a 100 percent track record of every veteran I see that has shown up from a different team that has said, 'Man, this locker room is (unified) and the closeness of this family is special.' We want to keep that."
Whitworth doesn't see it as an issue because it hasn't been one and he thinks the numbers would suggest he has already had a gay teammate at some point.
"I don't think anybody is naïve enough to think that we haven't," he said. "I think guys have always assumed that they're in the locker room and they were around us and that they just haven't felt comfortable voicing that.
"I don't care about the sexual preference of anybody in our locker room. It doesn't have any concern to me and I think the majority of football players will be that way. That's the last thing they're worried about. In our sport, we don't take batting practice or go shoot around and just show up and play a game. We're there eight hours a day together in a work environment, watching film, studying people. It's just a much different environment. We have to spend so much time together. The last thing you're worried about is someone's habits, unless they're being detrimental to the team."
The Bengals had a similar reaction when asked about the Sam announcement on Monday.
"The Bengals are about winning football games and we are a welcoming workplace that supports the concept of the NFL as a football meritocracy," the club said. "Purely personal factors will not affect the prospects here for someone who shows ability, determination and a commitment to be a good teammate in the club environment."