It was easy to nickname Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth "The Governor" a few years back.
The Big Whit Foundation that focuses on youth leadership began sprawling beyond his hometown of West Monroe, La. He's married to a former Miss Louisiana and once spoke on the same dias with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Now he's showing the drawing power of a two-term incumbent surfacing as the AFC Pro Bowl's leading vote-getter at tackle among the fans in Tuesday's first returns.
The Pro Bowl balloting, which runs through Monday night Dec. 20 on Bengals.com, has Whitworth with 202,771 votes, which leads Michael Oher of Baltimore with 171,794. Next in line are Jake Long of Miami (160,017), D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the Jets (144,317) and Flozell Adams of Pittsburgh (123,961). For a team that last year became the first division winner since the merger not to have a player voted to the Pro Bowl (wide receiver Chad Ochocinco went for the fifth time as an alternate), the numbers were a bit surprising to everyone but Whitworth.
"Last year I was second or third (in the fan vote) and I've got a good following back home with the foundation I do back there; I'm not surprised in that sense," Whitworth said. "I think (the votes) are coming from Cincinnati and Louisiana, two places that are very loyal when it comes to fans and been loyal to me."
Whitworth has also noticed more players coming up to him after games and saying things like, "You're having a heck of a year," including fellow tackles in the NFC such as Matt Stinchcomb and Jordan Gross. Even his arch-rival from the Steelers, outside linebacker James Harrison, told Whitworth he was having a good year, and they'll have a chance to renew vows this Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Even when he and his wife Melissa go out to eat now around town in his fifth season, the fans come up to the once anonymous young guard and tell him they go to the games and how well he's playing. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander constantly grades Whitworth in the 90s, his benchmark for an elite player, and charts that he has allowed just three sacks in the last 33 games.
But Whitworth gets the biggest kick when one of the guys he's been pounding for 60 minutes gives him the compliment. Harrison, the leading vote-getter at his position, sought him out after last month's game, they hugged, and gave each other the old, "Good luck the rest of the way," and "See you next time." This is the same Harrison that threw a punch at Whitworth at the waning moments of the Bengals 18-12 win in Pittsburgh last season for a huge 15-yard penalty when frustration at the Bengals' ability to run the ball snapped him.
"We'll be back throwing blows; he knows that," Whitworth said. "I respect him as a player and I'm sure he respects me."
Harrison respects Whitworth enough that he had virtually nothing to say about him in Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media.
"I think he'll be all right," Harrison said. "He did a good job last year and he did a good job in the last game."
Harrison didn't get Whitworth last month. The two sacks Whitworth has allowed this season have come to Dwight Freeney and John Abraham on the last plays of games in which the Bengals were basically chucking Hail Marys. Whitworth knows his first Pro Bowl berth relies on the coaches and players. Their votes weigh as evenly as the fans, all counting for a third.
He talked to the one tackle in the world who is an expert for paying the price at being on a bad team when it comes to the Pro Bowl. Whitworth spoke over the weekend with Bengals four-time Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, one of the elite players of his time who didn't make it until the Bengals went .500 in his eighth season of 2003.
The players and coaches were as tough as the fans. Anderson always remembers coming in dead last in the fan voting, even in the years he made it.
"He definitely deserves to go," Anderson said Wednesday from Atlanta. "I'll say the same thing I used to say about me: Look at the film, don't look at my team. Do I block my guy 90 percent of the time? Same thing with Whit. His guys stick to him like glue. But you know the guy from Cleveland (Joe Thomas) and Jake Long are going to go every year. Nothing you can do. They're the first pick and the third pick in the draft. They're going to go for the next 10 years because that's the way guys are always going to look at them. Whit is going to have to get that third (and last) spot."
Last year that spot went to Kansas City's Ryan Clady, but Whitworth's biggest competition is probably going to be Ferguson because he's another high pick and because the Jets are having such a good season. Anderson isn't sure the players are doing the right thing. When he went to Baltimore in 2008 and asked one of their Pro Bowler defenders who he was voting for at tackle, he was shocked at one of his picks.
"But he's given up 17 sacks this year," Anderson told the guy and the guy said that player played well against him the year before.
"Some guys are buddies and they vote for their buddies; some guys care about who wins," Whitworth said. "You don't know how it's going to go. Willie told me, 'I actually went one time when we had a bad year. You deserve it. You just never know what's going to happen.' Just encouraged me a little bit. It can happen. But for me it's about how we finish these last four games. I want to set an example on how these last four games should be played.
"You don't know what the fan vote will end up as teams wind down in the playoffs and who they're wanting to see more of."
Anderson, an Alabama native, Auburn product, and a top 10 pick himself, thinks he's got a lot in common with Whitworth even though he's from SEC rival LSU and a second rounder. Whitworth is a heck of an athlete for his massive size of 6-7, 340 pounds and he was a top junior golfer and tennis player. The 6-6, 350-pound Anderson was a junior version of Charles Barkley on the high school basketball floor. But they are so big, they don't look as smooth as, say, Anderson's left tackle in the last decade, Levi Jones.
"He's not as pretty as Levi doing it; same with me," Anderson said. "You look at his feet and you say, 'There's no way he can keep up with this guy,' and he ends up glued to his guy every time. Two years in a row. We have to fight who we are. Look at the film. That's always been my argument."
A Pro Bowl berth when the teams are announced Dec. 28 could mean more than a trip to Hawaii for the Jan. 30 game. Whitworth has a $200,000 Pro Bowl incentive in his contract, a three-year extension he signed with the Bengals heading into his third season in 2008 when Jones was still the left tackle and he was the left guard and before his last two seasons of seamless play at tackle. He signed the deal as a guard, depending how you view it, for between $4 and $6 million per year. The 10th highest paid tackle makes $6.5 million per year, but Whitworth isn't going to get wrapped up about a potential new contract.
"I'm very grateful to the Brown (family) for coming to me so early in my career and giving me what is a very good guard contract," Whitworth said. "Believe me; I'm grateful for what I have. As a competitor, you always want to better yourself and never stay where you are."
For now, the future means trying to run the table in the last month. For the moment, it is attempting to contain Harrison again.
"I don't even talk to him," Whitworth said of the matchup. "His nickname is "Debo." He's always bullying people."
At the moment, Whitworth is the people's choice.