CHOUDRANT, La. — Last year at The Big Whit 77 dinner, Andy Dalton couldn't put a name to a face. The big man himself, Andrew Whitworth, had never laid eyes on his new quarterback until he walked into the dinner.
"I was just looking for the dude with the red hair," Whitworth says.
With Dalton introducing Whitworth at this year's event over the weekend, the two closed the circle on the Bengals' remarkable 2011 season. And with players set to report to Paul Brown Stadium in two weeks to start the offseason program, they officially started the 2012 anticipation for a playoff repeat.
"We've got a chance," Dalton says, "to do some real good things."
Before then, there will be some vicious texting between the two. That's how this thing all started anyway.
"I don't even think it was a week before the draft and I get this e-mail from Whit," Dalton is saying a few hours before the dinner, warming up for his big intro. "He invited me to this event and he said, 'Just to let you know, if you don't come you'll be the first quarterback that's been invited not to come. Oh, and I've got your blindside.' So I started looking immediately for flights.'"
It got a good laugh a few hours later in what turned out to be a two-and-a-half minute speech. If you've sat through a Dalton news conference, that's his equivalent of Bill Clinton's run-on ramble job at the '88 convention.
But it was long enough for Dalton to thank Whitworth and wife Melissa for taking him and his bride Jordan under their wings during the season.
"To have those nights over at their house, or just go get dinner, it's been nice, really great for us," Dalton would tell the crowd. "Not only was it the first year of marriage, but it was going into a new city and starting our life in the NFL. It was great to have them."
The feeling turned out to be mutual. Despite being overdue for her third child, Melissa Clark Whitworth doesn't look much different than her Miss Louisiana days but she's been around long enough to know she's old enough to be a mentor in the NFL.
"He played with integrity. He played with character," she'll tell the sold-out crowd of 400 when she introduces Dalton. "He's a guy if you haven't known by now; he's a guy that everyone in here should be pulling for. Every single Sunday. He's that kind of guy."
A tough beginning, she admitted. No one really knew anything about the new quarterback and since it is such an important position and her husband's job is to block for him, she was "terrified" waiting for that first call from training camp.
But it was all good.
"Honey," Andrew told her after the first couple of days of training camp. "Andy Dalton gets the ball out fast."
That got a good laugh, too.
"She was way too kind to me," Dalton says to the mike.
And since he's a feel player, he plays it nice, too. Dalton doesn't have the speech written down. His game is anticipation and so that's how he handles this assignment. He finds himself sitting next to guest speaker Sean Payton, the Saints head coach who has managed to be in more headlines than that Peyton, and Dalton already knows he's a fan.
Before he even met this Payton he went to the Mannings' passing camp and no less than Archie Manning was a middleman that asked Dalton to autograph a jersey for Sean Payton's son Conner.
So he's pretty loose. "We'll see what happens," Dalton says, and isn't that kind of how he became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead his team into the playoffs starting all 16 games and throwing 20 touchdown passes?
"I get to introduce a guy that really meant a lot to me and helped keep me clean for the most part," he ends up saying. "So it's my great honor and privilege to introduce y'all to Andrew Whitworth."
And that's about as nice as it's going to get between these two, who just love to bust each other. The day before Dalton had sent a text to Whitworth while he and Jordan were caught in traffic trying to get here from their new home in Fort Worth, Texas. He questioned the traffic patterns of Shreveport specifically and the strength of Louisiana generally.
"I had been at him all day texting," Whitworth admits. "I was getting on him to leave early because of the traffic and he kept procrastinating like a little kid. I was telling him, 'That's what you get for getting on the road late.' "
"If you ever need someone to make you feel humble, just talk to Whit. He'll bring you down," he says. "But he's definitely one of my good friends."
The friends are ready to roll. Dalton has been using his new theater-style man cave to watch film and says a Fort Worth passing camp with the guys may be in the near future.
"I'm excited about getting back up to Cincinnati," Dalton says. "It's one thing to be working out, but it's a lot better when there's football to do."
Whitworth's left knee is back to where it was before last season began. A bout of tendinitis cropped up during the second month of the season and by the end of the year he thinks it affected his run blocking.
"Basically my quad shut down. There was a lot of muscle loss in the muscle of my left leg and I've built it back up. I'm back to working out, doing what I normally do," he says. "Yoga. Stretching. I never had to stop. It's about tolerating the pain.
"You're still able to play and perform. You don't get as much push as you normally would in the running game. The real issue is once you get out over your knee, it's pretty weak. That's pretty hard not to be able to do in the run game."
Whitworth likes what the Bengals have done to perk up the run game with some of their moves the past few weeks. Better yet, he likes the sound of the character that has signed on, starting with the man expected to play next to him at left guard in former Panther Travelle Wharton.
"I'm pumped up for it. We've kind of filled the needs and the holes and solidified ourselves," Whitworth says. "Getting Reggie (Nelson) back was big. I think we're all excited to move forward off of last year."
Whitworth hopes the whole thing comes full circle in Louisiana again next year. In about 11 months. The Super Bowl is in the Superdome a couple of hours to the south in New Orleans. It's the building where he helped Monroe to three straight state titles and where he helped LSU win the '03 national championship.
You know what he's thinking.
"I think we can win the Super Bowl with Andy and all the other guys we've got in that locker room," Whitworth says. "But you have to go year by year. Each year is different and has nothing to do with the year before. The way some of our young players played last year is the reason we are where we are. If they get better and stronger and more experienced, then we'll get better. But we're not going to know until we get on the field this year."
Whitworth's call to have Dalton say a few words doesn't go unnoticed. A bigger, more vocal role for No. 14 in the second go around?
"It's going to be different. When I left here last year, I didn't know who was who," Dalton says. "I think I'll take on a little bit more this year. I'm not going to change that much."
Whitworth puts the needle down for a little bit.
"I think he's opening up more. He's talking to me a little more," Whitworth says. "I think you're going to hear his voice more."
But enough of that nice stuff.
"The only reason we asked him to introduce me," Whitworth says, "is because it was a minute time slot and we figured he's the only guy we could get that would talk that long."
That's OK. The dude with the red hair spoke long enough to close the circle and start another.