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Patchwork leadership

Domata Peko

Ever since this last Sunday, when left tackle Andrew Whitworth pulled a Secret Service for Andy Dalton and Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis brought the captain's patch out of mothballs, leadership has been locker-room fodder for the media.

Which goes to show how far the concept has come in the 27-game A.J. Green-Andy Dalton era. It has moved from the '08-'10 generational shift when guys like Whitworth, defensive tackle Domata Peko, safety Chris Crocker and defensive end Robert Geathers grabbed a winless team by the throat, to a smooth transition where the team now has leaders in every nook and cranny.

Go back to 2008 when the Bengals were 0-8. Go to the walkthrough the day before they beat Jacksonville. Whitworth, then in his third year, gathered the offense for a talk.

"I called us out as an offense," Whitworth said right after that 21-19 victory. "There was a day we walked around here with confidence and nobody could step on the field with us. I said I don't care how the season is going. It's got to be for the rest of the year. The next eight games we walk on the field and no one is going to push us around and no one is going to think we're a joke, and we're going to stand up for ourselves in every situation.

"I can't really say all the words I used. I said other teams look at us like we're punks, like we're a joke, and they're going to come in here and walk over us. I challenged the guys to play for pride, and play for why we play: to win and not lay down for anybody."

That was the day Jags defensive tackle John Henderson attacked Whitworth and ripped off his helmet to claw his face and Whitworth got a standing ovation from the Paul Brown Stadium crowd when he got ejected for fighting back.

Four years later, things are a lot different. Like the record. But after he got ejected last Sunday for confronting Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston following a cheap shot on an unprotected Dalton, Whitworth thinks maybe the Bengals playoff run at 6-5 can get some kind of fuel from the intangibles.

"I haven't been able to go anywhere without somebody saying something to me. Different guys I know across the league texting me and stuff. So guys love it, they support it," Whitworth said Wednesday of the actions that have followed his actions. "I've had everything you can imagine from people (that) say (things) to me about it. And I appreciate all that.

"It was kind of the same situation four years ago, actually. We were 0-8 and a lot of people felt like we were going to quit and I had addressed the team about not allowing people to push us around and talk about us that way. (There was) a situation where I kind of defended the team in that sense in that game, and that was the first game we won. So it's one of those things I'm never afraid to stick my neck out for these guys in this locker room and I think most of the people who have been here know that."

They may not wear the "C" patch this year, but Whitworth and Peko and others remain de facto captains, which the Bengals never had back in the day.

"It's understood. Domata and I have been leaders since we got here; that's never been an issue," Whitworth said. "It's cooler for a young guy like Rey and Andy where they have been working to get to that position and the coaches kind of feel like it's time to give them that declaration. I think that's cool for them."

Peko has been a huge role model for Maualuga, so it was almost like talking to a proud dad Wednesday.

"That doesn't matter to me," Peko said of the patch. "It means a lot to Rey and Andy and I'm super-excited for them. That's real cool. We have a team full of leaders. They're going to do their part, we're going to do our part, everybody is going to do their part."

Whitworth said it's a natural.

"I think the team understands those guys call the huddles, they lead the defense and the offense and I think everybody sees them that way. I don't think that changes a lot for us."

But clearly the last few days have had an impact on Dalton and Maualuga.

"I hold it very dear," Maualuga said. "It's something when I first came in here, Carson (Palmer) pulled me aside and told me: 'Why couldn't you be a captain? Just do your best to lead.' And that's been something I've been trying to push since he told me that. So I'm very grateful and honored to represent this team and do my best here to do whatever I can to keep things positive.

"It just reiterated the fact that we needed to push it forward, to make sure that we're not just a couple words-type of guys but to, I guess, lead by example and let our play develop and play it out. And if it's not for these other guys around us, it wouldn't make us the type of players that we are. So it's a responsibility and it's something that I feel if coach didn't think we could handle it, he wouldn't have put it on us."

Whitworth had the same thought. The Bengals are 3-1 since Lewis called out Dalton and Maualuga to lead and while Dalton has racked up a 117.2 passer rating in the last three games, the defense has risen to No. 9 in the NFL.

"The truth is," Whitworth said, "they play well, the team plays well and we have to play well around them. That's been as much of it as anything else."

Dalton said he didn't need the patch to assume he was a captain. Since Lewis issued the challenge, Dalton and Maualuga have been game captains for all four Sundays.

"Ever since he kind of said everything to (the media)," Dalton said. "He challenged us then. I didn't know I was going to have the 'C' on the jersey until we got here for the game. Ever since then, I felt like we were going to be captains for the rest of the season."

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