Former Bengal Willie Anderson, the greatest right tackle of his era, became a Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist for the first time Tuesday when the Canton, Ohio shrine released the list of 25 names from the Modern Era.
Anderson heads up an offensive line group of former Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli and former Steelers, Jets and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca in a class that's going to be remembered for the first-ballot induction of former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
The list of 15 finalists is usually revealed before Christmas with the final vote of the Hall's board of selectors coming the day before the Super Bowl. Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com has one of the committee's 48 votes as the Cincinnati selector.
Former Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson is already on the finals ballot as the senior nominee in addition to the 15 Modern Era candidates. The senior committee, made up of five selectors, nominates players whose careers ended more than 25 years ago and before they selected Pearson back in August, Bengals greats Ken Riley and Ken Anderson made the seniors' version of the finals.
Willie Anderson, the 10th pick of the 1996 draft, went to four straight Pro Bowls during a dozen seasons with the Bengals before playing a season in Baltimore and retiring after the 2008 AFC title game. That made him eligible for the Hall in 2013 and Tuesday marked his longest journey yet in his bid to reach the Canton steps.
"I'm shocked, but I'm not shocked," Anderson said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm not shocked because I think my career stacks up with anybody that's played this game. I just figured the voters would never get a chance to see how good of a player I was. I'm grateful and thankful and humbled to move up like this."
Also on the preliminary list who didn't make the cut to 25 were three of Anderson's Bengals teammates, running back Corey Dillon, wide receiver Chad Johnson and linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Anderson didn't start going to Pro Bowls until head coach Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003 and hooked up Anderson, Dillon and Johnson with overall No. 1 quarterback Carson Palmer, as well as running back Rudi Johnson and wide receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry on top 10 offenses from 2005-07.
Before all that, Anderson anchored elite running attacks despite a carousel of quarterbacks. In 1999 the Bengals were tied for sixth in rushing and ranked 23rd in passing and the next year they were second in rushing and last in passing with Anderson paving the way for Dillon's 1,435 yards and 4.6 yards per carry with just 4.9 yards per pass.
Anderson's study has shown that in his 195 games he allowed just 16 sacks, but he's not only a pass blocker with Hall credentials. He blocked for Dillon in his 278-yard game that set the NFL rushing record and in his 246-yard game that set the NFL rookie rushing record, plus Anderson blocked for Rudi Johnson's back-to-back Bengals single-single season rushing records in 2004-05.
"Sixteen sacks in 13 years is a real number and the film shows it," Anderson said. "We dominated in the run game with not really a passing game in those early years. Once we got Carson, Chad and T.J. and those guys to complement the run game, my talents showed a lot more nationally. But I felt I'd been doing it for years."
Anderson is just one of three offensive linemen on the ballot. Both Boselli and Faneca are semifinalists for the sixth time.
Boselli, the second pick in the 1995 draft, played just 91 games before injuries halted his career. Four contemporaries on the left side, Jonathan Ogden, Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace and Walter Jones, are already in with Anderson, the best right tackle of their time, waiting to join them.
Faneca, who last played with the Cardinals in 2010, was a first-round pick of the Steelers. Two other interior players from his era, Steve Hutchinson and Kevin Mawae, are already in.
"I think there are other Bengals that deserve to be in," Anderson said. "I'm honored to be making this next step."