A week out from knee surgery and just a month removed from his first Pro Bowl appearance, left tackle Andrew Whitworth is confident the Bengals longest streak of 67 straight starts in the regular and postseason is going to remain intact.
After Bengals doctor Marc Galloway's procedure to remove scar tissue last week, Whitworth has begun getting up and around in the first stages of rehab and is already revived knowing he won't have to play through the pain of the past two seasons.
"I thought it was a thing I could tough out, but it kind of wears on you," Whitworth says. "It was time to get it fixed and I feel great. I don't feel any different than the first day I played in the NFL."
Whitworth, who turned 31 late last season, is a year-to-year guy. But after doctors looked into his knees and found them to be remarkably pristine after 102 NFL starts, if you ask him now he says he thinks he can play five more seasons.
"Everything I heard from the doctors is that the knee looked really clean and that makes you feel good when you're over 30," he says. "Honestly, the way I feel, yeah. I haven't really felt the effects yet of playing this game. I don't feel it necessarily in my body day-to-day. I'm still excited to put on a helmet.
"That's the No. 1 goal. When guys lose the inspiration and excitement about it and stop training for it, that's when they're heading down the road. But I'm still excited to work my butt off and to be on a good young team who has its best years in front of it."
Five more seasons and about another 80 games would put Whitworth in the rarified air of the franchise's two best tackles. Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz played 185 games in 13 seasons, the fifth-most in Bengals history. Four-time Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson played 181 in 12 years.
Whitworth, who has made 77 starts at left tackle and 25 at left guard, has played every game in six of his seven seasons and every game since he became the regular left tackle in '09, with the only blip coming when he missed the last six games of the 2008 season with a high ankle sprain.
He's not sure of this time frame, but there's a chance that Anthony Collins and others are going to be taking those snaps at left tackle during the May and June camps while Whitworth fully expects to be ready "when the pads come on" the first day of training camp.
"There's nothing structurally wrong with the knee, so it's just a matter of letting it heal properly and build up muscle strength," Whitworth says.
He figures he did something to the knee some time during the 2011 season, and while he's hesitant to wonder how much it limited him, he knows being healthy is going to be a boost for his ability to get into shape. All that said, Pro Football Focus rated Whitworth the best pass blocking tackle in the NFL last season.
"It affected me. There were practices I had to miss and it was hindering. I wasn't at a full percentage, but everybody has to play through stuff," he says. "I think where it really hurts is the training out of season. You're trying to keep it settled rather than pushing yourself like you're normally used to. You really have to change things training-wise."
Whitworth isn't a great believer in change when it comes to approaching his career. He may be coming off a Pro Bowl season with high grades. And not even Muñoz and Anderson anchored offensive lines that went to three postseasons in four years. But Whitworth still looks at it like the kid who arrived as the 55th pick in 2006.
"My goal is to keep playing as long as people still want you. I want to be a Bengal as long as they'll allow me to," Whitworth says. "But I think you have to earn that right. I think every year you have to have that in your mind. Every single season and every single offseason I have to earn my spot. That doesn't change for me. I'm excited to go do it again."