An open letter to the son of former Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson:
Your very proud dad tells me you are 13 and suddenly loving sports. You've got the best of both worlds down there in Alpharetta, Ga., playing quarterback, wide receiver and linebacker for the Chattahooche Junior Cougars, feeder team for Georgia's 4A high school champs. He's around because he's coaching the offensive and defensive lines, yet you also work out with him four days a week in the summer for football and basketball.
I got to thinking about you the other day when I read a debate a couple of guys are having on NFL.com about who is the NFL's best offensive linemen of the 21st century. It is between Steve Wyche, a guy I know and like and admire as an extremely talented reporter, and a Mr. Harrison, a guy I don't know. Unbelievably, I couldn't find your dad's name anywhere on the screen. Blank. Like what he did to guys like Michael Strahan and Julius Peppers, two of the most prolific sackers since 2000.
I mean, if the pundits don't realize what your dad did, then how are you going to know how good your dad was? You were 10 when he retired, but you hadn't started playing football yet. You're playing basketball, too, now, and at 6-1, 152 pounds, your dad laughs when someone says you'll end up playing the winter game.
"Probably right," he says.
Now you're 13 and no doubt you're wondering and the questions about everything are getting older and more frequent. Well, there is no question. Any discussion of the best offensive lineman of the 21st century has to include your dad.
Just ask Warren Sapp. You've seen him on NFL Network. Big guy. As big as his opinions. Great laugh. But before that, he was a pretty good player. John Thornton, a defensive tackle who used to play with your dad on the Bengals, speaks for many of his peers and says Sapp is the greatest defensive tackle of all-time.
"Willie is the standard by which all those right tackles were judged," Sapp said when asked about your dad a few days ago. "I can't even think of a right tackle that belonged in his class. I have to go all the way back to Erik Williams of those old Cowboys teams."
Williams was a four-time Pro Bowler for Dallas when the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the early '90s and he stopped playing in 2001. Wyche argues for Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden and Harrison takes up for Seattle's Walter Jones. Both worthy men. Both men who should be in the discussion, as they say.
But, of course, both are left tackles. Wyche also talks about two guards, Larry Allen, and Steve Hutchinson, as well as left tackles Orlando Pace and Willie Roaf. He mentions center Jeff Saturday and guard Chris Snee, but ends up ruling them out before noting no one ever talks about center Kevin Mawae. Harrison puts a guard, Will Shields, into his discussion with Ogden, Pace, and Hutchinson. He rules out left tackles Jake Long and Joe Thomas because they're too young and says no one ever talks about another left tackle, Tarik Glenn.
That's the problem. Everyone, including the moviemakers, is infatuated with left tackles. Maybe your dad took you to see "The Blind Side." The funny thing is, there is a blind spot when it comes to right tackles of the 21st century. Your dad always talked about how the game changed in the last decade while it was happening. The best pass rushers weren't always lining up at right end like they were in the '80s and '90s when Lawrence Taylor chewed off Joe Theismann's leg on prime time. (Don't watch if you haven't seen it. Only for 14 and over.)
Elias has Jason Taylor for the most sacks in the 2000s (116) and he lined up all over the place. Your dad went against him a few times when the Bengals played the Dolphins and Redskins and he never got him for a sack. Strahan and Peppers, Hall of Fame candidates, worked on their left side and are tied for fifth with 89. Your dad shut them out in the one game they met.
Your dad also went head-to-head twice a year against the all-time sack leaders for the decade's most devastating pass rush teams, Jason Gildon of the Steelers and Peter Boulware of the Ravens. Anderson remembers offensive line coach Paul Alexander charging him for 1.5 sacks in all the games against Gildon and not one against Boulware.
"The one against Gildon," your dad says," came late in a rout."
Thornton, your dad's old teammate, broke into the NFL with a kid named Jevon Kearse in 1999 in Tennessee. You might not have ever heard of Kearse, but no one could block him until he got hurt. From '99 to '01 he had 36 sacks and was so good he was called "The Freak." Back then the Titans were in the Bengals division, so your dad faced him twice a year and the only time Thornton can remember Kearse getting a sack against the Bengals is when he twice chased down Jeff Blake running out of the pocket.
The Titans defensive line was coached for a long time by the estimable Jim Washburn and he had high regard for Anderson, as well as center Rich Braham and several of Alexander's guys.
"He'd always say he could never find a bad play by Willie on film," Thornton said. "He'd always find plays to help guys in the room. He'd have (Ravens end) Michael McCrary beating (Jaguars left tackle) Tony Boselli and we'd use that when we were playing Baltimore. But he couldn't find anything on Willie on film. We always voted for him for the Pro Bowl."
Here was the mindset: The Titans had a Pro Bowl end in Kevin Carter when Bengals left tackle Levi Jones was a rookie. This was 2002, Thornton's last year in Tennessee when he played a little end himself. Washburn decided to put Thornton on your dad and Carter on Jones to give Carter the best matchup. The Titans won but didn't have a sack.
"We knew Levi was going to be good and we were saying, 'You better get him now when he doesn't know what he's doing yet,' " Thornton said. "Guys were nearly fighting each other trying to line up over him instead of Willie.
"You've got some great players on that list those guys are talking about. Some are Hall of Famers. But you talked to Sapp. He's the greatest defensive tackle of all time. If he says Willie should be mentioned with those guys, then he should be in that category. I don't think there's a question about it. It's the kind of thing where Willie suffered because early in his career he played on some bad teams and no one paid attention. If you talk to players and coaches, though, they know."
Like Sapp. Warren saw Anderson plenty. In '98, '01 and '02 when he was with Tampa Bay and '06 when he was with the Raiders. When Oakland came to town, the Raiders had linebacker Derrick Burgess playing on Anderson's side and he was having the best two years of his life exploiting all kinds of right tackles. After getting 16 sacks in '05, he had 11 in '06. The Raiders had none that day in Cincy.
"I was trying to tell (Burgess) the week we went up there," Sapp said. "I was telling him, 'Look, this isn't going to be a typical game for you. This guy can play.' I was right. He didn't get near (Carson Palmer). It was an old-fashioned, stinky, lean and push and keep the guy away anyway you can. Willie, he could play. But because the Bengals never won a playoff game, stuff like that hurts him and that's why you never hear about how good he was."
Your dad says you don't remember much about his career so you may not know about 2006, the season he blanked Burgess, Peppers (who had 13 sacks that season), and Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips during a season he had 11.5 sacks. Peppers and Burgess didn't have a sack in Bengals wins and in San Diego's second-half blitz at Paul Brown Stadium, Phillips' big sack-and-strip came off a blitz.
Go to the man himself.
"I never said I was the best guy; that's something you debate and there is no right answer," your dad said this week. "All I'm saying is I deserve to be in the discussion. I should at least be considered.
"I saw where one of those guys marked down Ogden because he played on offenses that ranked low. Stats don't mean anything for offensive linemen. He played on a bad offense, that's all. I thought there were only two things that mattered if you're an offensive lineman. Did your guy get to the quarterback when he was passing and did you control your guy in the running game? That's all. Then I think you have to at least talk about it."
OK, but here's a couple of stats: Bengals running back Corey Dillon had one of the greatest rushing seasons ever when you were two years old in 2000 and he was doing a lot of running behind your dad for a 4.8 yards per rush average that matched the yards per attempt of the starting quarterback. Then Rudi Johnson broke the team rushing record in consecutive years in 2004 and 2005.
But, like Thornton says, players know. I just thought you should, too.
Watch out. He thinks your dad can still play even though he turns 36 in a week.
"I think," Thornton said, "he could come back right now after a few weeks and get back in there."
But it sounds like he's happy coaching and being around you. Good luck. Stay healthy. Keep up the good work in school, where your dad says you're getting As and Bs. And remind your dad that William Felton Russell is the greatest basketball player of all time.
Don't Google him. Ask your dad.