First time the right time

12-18-03, 4:15 p.m. Updated:
12-18-03, 10:20 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

With right tackle Willie Anderson already on the AFC Pro Bowl team, Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson vowed to bring the other nine starters to Hawaii. And the offensive staff. And. . .

"I think," said quarterback Jon Kitna, "Chad is writing a check too big for his mouth. But I might check him out over there."

While Johnson made it to his first Pro Bowl Thursday on the strength of his glitzy AFC-leading 1,211 yards and a bevy of memorable sound bites, Anderson made it for the first time on what he called the back roads, "through the dirt," and heaved a sigh of relief in the direction of head coach Marvin Lewis.

The man his offensive line coach says has been the NFL's best right tackle for the past five years saluted the man he says should be the NFL Coach of the Year.

"I'm thankful," Anderson said, "that it came like this instead of going 2-14. . .(Lewis) made a prophecy to my agent when he came. He said we were going to get things turned around so (Anderson) could do things like this. I'm thankful he came here to coach this team."

Kitna was voted the second alternate quarterback as fans, players, and coaches recognized an offense that is ranked 10th in the NFL and is in contention to go to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

Wide receiver Peter Warrick, named the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Week in the Kansas City victory, also was named as a second alternate for kick returns.

Anderson had to wait through 124 games, eight starting quarterbacks, and four head coaches to go to the Pro Bowl. Johnson only had to wait until Kitna was named the starter 26 games ago. Anderson, 28, who says his Pro Bowl bonus is worth $50,000 if he starts the Feb. 8 game in Hawaii, said he'll give it to a charity to be named. Johnson, 25, said his bonus (figure in the $100,000 range) is going to cover the $70,000 in fines he has incurred from the NFL.

But Johnson is being plenty charitable with the Hawaii offer, which is made just a little more palatable with the $26 million, five-year extension he signed last month. In becoming the Bengals' first Pro Bowl wide receiver since Carl Pickens seven years ago, Johnson said he hates that the Pro Bowl is an individual honor and wants to make sure, "anybody who had anything to do with it," makes the trip.

Earlier in the day, he told Kitna, "Pack your suitcase, you're coming with me," and he meant it because in the past two years Kitna has given him a lift at critical points in his career. Once, in December of 2001 after their ugly shouting match on a Baltimore sideline. And finally, on Oct. 6, 2002 in Indianapolis, when Kitna made the first of his

26 straight starts and Johnson dropped a fourth down pass on the Colts' 25 in the last minute of a 28-21 loss.

"Sink with it or rise to the occasion," Johnson remembers Kitna saying.

Until that point, Johnson had 33 catches for 407 yards (12.3 yards per catch) and two touchdowns in 16 NFL games. Since then, he has 143 catches for 2,299 yards (16.1) and 14 touchdowns.

"I knew Chad was going to make it," Kitna said. "For wide receivers, the stats are measurable and he's having a great year. But I feel so good about Willie. He's been good for a long time, but there just aren't any stats for the offensive line."

Maybe the best stat for Anderson, and for left tackle Levi Jones, is Kitna's stats on third down. He is the third best passer in the NFL on third down with a 102.1 rating, and he's the only quarterback to throw for 1,000 yards on third down in leading the Bengals to the fourth best third-down efficiency in the league. And Anderson and Jones don't get help from chipping running backs and tight ends, even on the all-out pass rushes.

"What we've done on third down speaks for itself," Kitna said. "I wouldn't trade in our tackles for any other pair in the league."

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander has been saying that for years about Anderson, now he has to feel some sort of vindication that plenty of people agree with him.

"Here's a guy who averages giving up about a sack a year," Alexander said. "And he's a dominant run blocker. Why do we always seem to have great running backs? Someone is blocking for him. This is a great thing for the guy. I don't think he thought it was ever going to happen."

But Anderson understood, "nobody really knows me," when he saw the fan vote that put him eighth at 55,708, about 33,000 votes shy of Kansas City's John Tait at No. 3. Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden and Kansas City's Willie Roaf led the way, respectively, and they were the other two tackles that made it when the other two-thirds of the vote players and coaches kicked in.

"That's why it was gratifying the coaches and the players picked it as well," Anderson said.

With the Raiders having a bad year, Lincoln Kennedy was no longer a lock as a right tackle and Anderson took the opening.

Lewis saluted Anderson for his leadership, but it was Anderson who kept saying Lewis had turned it all around. He said that Jones now has a much easier road making it to the Pro Bowl because more people are going to be watching the Bengals.

It also wasn't lost on him that he is the team's first offensive lineman to go Pro Bowling since Hall-of-Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz finished off a then-record run of 11 straight in 1991.

"I've thought about it every year I didn't make it," said Anderson, who says he battled every year to take that stigma off the position and silence the media.

Like Johnson, Anderson remembered the people who helped. Anderson praised Johnson for playing with such brilliance and flash that people couldn't ignore the Bengals any more. He said the Bengals wouldn't have been anywhere without Kitna's leadership, and he said center Rich Braham and right guard Mike Goff helped him know what he's doing with their calls.

He also paid tribute to his Auburn soul mate and former Bengals teammate Takeo Spikes, now a Bills linebacker. From 1998-2002, they kept each other going with thoughts of the Pro Bowl even though they were on teams that went 19-61.

"Someone is always watching. The tape never lies," is how they kept it going, and so it was probably meant to be that they were named to their first Pro Bowls on different teams.

"I talked to him yesterday on birthday," Anderson said. They told each other they thought the other was going to make it because they were making sure their teammates were voting for each other.

Anderson had plenty of help in town, too. He thanked the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage for sending up a huge prayer Wednesday night. The church is where Anderson hosted one of his two Thanksgiving dinners for the needy last month, and he was at it again Thursday night, trying to hit three different places from 6 to 8 p.m.

After being honored by the Boy Scouts in a dinner at Paul Brown Stadium, Anderson ducked next door to the West Club Lounge to attend the team's Christmas party. Then he was hauling presents over to a youth group in Avondale.

"(The Pro Bowl) is something you think about when you're going through a 2-14, 3-13 season," said Anderson before the teams were announced. "You're thinking, 'I just want to get something out of this season.' But man, if I can make the playoffs, I don't give a rat's about the Pro Bowl. I'll be so happy if we make the playoffs.

"The Pro Bowl is a big game, and everybody wants to make it, but a guy's career isn't defined by that. It's defined by how many winning teams you're on," Anderson said. "I don't want to be remembered for playing on losing teams. I saw a stat a couple of years ago where Marty Carter had the record for playing in the most games without going to the playoffs, and he was over 100. I'm afraid I'm getting close to him."

Anderson doesn't have to worry yet. Carter is far down the list at 161 games without going to the playoffs. The record is held by Sam Baker at 195 games from 1953-69. The active leader for games played without a post-season berth is former Bengals tight Tony McGee, now with the Giants, at 154. Sean Gilbert is second at 145, former Bengals safety Bracey Walker, now with the Lions, is at 133, Panthers punter Todd Sauerbrun at 128, and Anderson at 124. The list is shortened with the Panthers going to the playoffs, and Anderson hopes to make it even shorter.

Johnson finished second in the AFC in fan voting with 541,489 votes, far behind the Colts' Marvin Harrison with 769,782, and ahead of the Jets' Santana Moss at 452,660. Harrison and Johnson are joined by Tennessee's Derrick Mason and Pittsburgh's Hines Ward at AFC receiver.

The last time the Bengals had two Pro Bowl position players was also the last time they had an eight-win season, when Pickens and cornerback Ashley Ambrose represented the 1996 team that went 8-8.

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