We probably won't see left tackle Andrew Whitworth until the Bengals open training camp at Paul Brown Stadium on July 25. But the offense's elder statesman is pretty sure what he's going to see from a unit that is now officially pinned under the microscope after last week's NFL Draft.
"How many of these guys have been together more than two years? None of them," Whitworth said this week as he reflected on the skill positions. "It is a developing experience. It's going to get better naturally … no doubt about it. Not a question in my mind. We're going to make it that way. We're going to develop and guys are going to mature together. ... Then also the fact they're all the kind that's going to push it to the next level."
Whitworth is shelved until camp as he rehabs from knee maintenance surgery, but he is still the deacon of an offense that he leads with 102 Bengals starts.
When he made his first start as a rookie in 2006, Rich Braham was his center and Willie Anderson his right tackle, two guys that blocked for both Corey Dillon and Boomer Esiason.
So if anyone has perspective, it is No. 77 and he can't get enough of two of the kids he's talking about: rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and second-year wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. When Eifert came in last Friday the day after he was drafted No. 1, Whitworth took him and his family to dinner.
"Great family. Great kid. He's hungry. He'll fit right into this locker room. What upset me more than anything is that's he's a scratch golfer," said Whitworth, failing to contain a smile.
The extremely competitive Whitworth is protective of that 6 handicap that probably leads the locker room. Now the word is Eifert is something like a 2. But after getting past all the posturing and laughing, Whitworth likes the sound of that.
"I haven't met any really good golfers that weren't really good football players; that doesn't mean you are one," Whitworth said. "That's strong. Golf is one of those games that takes intensity, tough focus, and technique. You know that a kid that big and that athletic, if he can play golf that well, that means he knows how to work, he knows how to focus."
Whitworth has been focused on Sanu since everyone got back into town a few weeks ago and he still sees visions of the third-round pick last season that caught four touchdowns in the three games before he suffered a season-ending broken foot in the Nov. 29 practice.
"He's an extremely hard worker. He's been most impressive to me with his work ethic. You talk about hungry, he's hungry," Whitworth said. "I think he looks amazing. You look at that (three-game) stretch, it was amazing. I think guys are really excited about him."
Whitworth starts ticking off reasons why this offense has him excited and you begin to realize it dwarfs the number of options Whitworth, quarterback Carson Palmer and the gang had in those five frustrating seasons from 2006-10.
"Anytime you can have packages with an (elusive slot receiver) Andrew Hawkins, an A.J. Green, Mo, and you now add Tyler into the equation with Jermaine (Gresham), you look at the spread sequence and you get a tough matchup for a lot of people," he said.
But it was easy to play this offense once Sanu went down. With Eifert now teaming with Gresham and giving the Bengals two big athletic targets that can stretch the field in a two tight-end formation that can also run the ball, Whitworth sees defensive decision-makers struggling.
"Spread it and you've got a tough matchup. Or, you can stay in two tights with one running back and it's a tough matchup," he said. "(Two tights are) going to put us in some situations where we're not beating our head up against a wall. We got into some situations where sometimes personnel-wise teams were just able to load up on us and double A.J. That's a situation now where you add another skill guy like (Eifert) and they have to make a decision. They overload different runs and different things blitz-wise and they can get themselves in trouble."
Whitworth has been thinking back to 2006. Or 2 B.Z. (Before Zimmer) and he looks at a roster of regular skill players fraught with players heading into their third season or fewer.
"People forget how extremely young we are on offense. We've got a lot of guys entering into that third, fourth, fifth year. About the time the light turns on for guys and we have a ton of guys in that group," he said. "This is a great opportunity for us. I remember for me, from Year 1 to Year 3, the difference was dramatic. Year 3 is a whole different thing."
Whitworth hears how the offense and quarterback Andy Dalton are suddenly under more pressure to play better than last year, particularly down the stretch. But he thinks the heat is already there and it is self-inflicted.
"People see it as pressure, but they don't," Whitworth said. "Every player's mindset is you want to get better than you were the year before. There's no pressure for those guys because they already expect to be better. Andy Dalton, without a doubt, 100 percent, expects to be better in 2013. All the guys feel that way."
He looks at Dalton's 47 TD passes and two playoff appearance in his first two seasons.
"Go back and look at Andy's stats compared to all the great quarterbacks that have played in their first two seasons. Don't tell me about guys that waited to play three or four years. Tell me guys who were rookies and second-years. He's up there with anybody in the ballgame," Whitworth said. "People forget. There's time, there's development, there's maturity for those guys to hit their stride."
But he also knows what the Bengals offense has to do in what he calls "The Big Tournament," otherwise known as the playoffs. As the Bengals have found out, there are no mulligans in January. But Whitworth likes the way the course sets up.
"I know we'll be in every game; we'll have a chance," Whitworth said. "Can we make the big play or two to win these games and then keep it going if we get to the Big Tournament? That's what it comes down to.
"Paper doesn't win games. Playing better than the guy across from you does."