Updated: 5:50 p.m.
Willie Anderson, stunned at the whispers surrounding his physical condition, insists his knee injury is healed and that he can play three or four more seasons despite coming off the most injury-plagued season of his 12-year career.
Asked if he thinks his four-time Pro Bowl right tackle can still play, head coach Marvin Lewis said, "He's dealing with some things physically that he'll have to overcome. There is no question about that and he understands that. But to answer your question best, he really believes he'll be fine. "
With even his 10-year-old son asking him if he's going to retire, Anderson said he felt it was time to end the silence surrounding the sprained medial collateral ligament he suffered on running back Kenny Watson's eight-yard touchdown run on the offense's final play in the 24-21 loss to Seattle Sept. 23 when he collided with tight end Reggie Kelly's helmet.
"The knee didn't wear out. It took a hit. That's all. Now it's fine," Anderson said, confirming it was not as bad as Rich Braham's knee fracture that led to his retirement. "Yes I'm coming back. My knee is healed. I'm getting tired of hearing people saying, 'Willie's done.' ''
But it looks like he may be done for this season. He'll most likely miss his eighth straight game Saturday night in San Francisco because he hasn't practiced the last two days and would he play in the final two meaningless games?
"That's an organization question. That's up to the team doctors and the head coach," Anderson said.
Lewis was effusive about Anderson's locker-room contributions in this toughest of seasons, but less forthcoming about the club's plans for the greatest right tackle in team history.
"For a while there, we were getting the right signals," Lewis said. "He came out and he practiced, and he's had a little setback. We'll go and we'll see what happens."
Despite Anderson's signals Wednesday, it doesn't look like he's returning to practice this week. He also said 'three or four doctors" have recently told him that the injured foot (torn ligament) that cost him all the spring and summer camps is going to be fine as long as he gives it attention.
The Bengals have to be concerned about the state of their offensive tackles heading into the offseason. Left tackle Levi Jones, also early in a front-loaded $40 million deal, has had to battle several knee problems himself. Also, right tackle Stacy Andrews, Anderson's replacement, has rapidly raised his market value for free agency and there is some question that the Bengals can keep all three salaries.
"I don't know about that; that's a general manager question," said Anderson, who feels the fourth-year Andrews is a player on the make.
"We were making a joke about that the other day," Anderson said. "Anybody who sees Stacy with his size and mass and sees the things he can do on the field with his speed, agility, and quickness ... I know for sure we want to keep him here. But business is business. He's learned a lot and he's still learning. I think his play has increased week in and week out and he's been holding up and playing at a good enough level to win. He should be a hot commodity."
It's believed Anderson, 32, signed a $32 million package just before the 2006 regular season for a $5.7 million average, about half of which he received this year and last. He's scheduled to make $3.2 million in base salary next year.
"How did I go from (116) straight games to 'I don't want to play anymore?' " Anderson said of the rumors. "I don't have it now, so I'm not commenting on injuries."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
Niners head coach Mike Nolan said Wednesday that third quarterback Shaun Hill is the "most likely" starter in Saturday night's game against the Bengals.
That means for the first time since 1999, according to Elias Sports Bureau, a team is facing a quarterback making his first NFL start in back-to-back weeks. The Eagles went on the road to beat Cade McNown's Bears, 20-16, and then went to Miami and lost to Damon Huard's Dolphins, 16-13.
The Bengals beat the Rams, 19-10, in Brock Berlin's first NFL game last week. Hill, at 27, threw his first 27 pro passes last Sunday in relief of Trent Dilfer (concussion) and completed 22 for a touchdown and 181 yards.
The 6-3, 226-pound Hill has much more experience than Berlin when it comes to the system and preseason work. Hill is in his second season with the Niners and sixth in the NFL.
"I really enjoy the guy," Nolan said in a conference call with Cincinnati reporters. "He's an instinctive guy that's just been waiting for his opportunity to play. ... He gives us a great look in practice. I've always been kind of eager to see how he'll do, so this is a good opportunity for him."
Nolan said that the No. 1 quarterback, Alex Smith, apologized to the team Wednesday for making comments on how Nolan has handled the shoulder problems of the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. Smith, out for the year, undergoes surgery Thursday, and Nolan said the Niners just signed Chris Weinke to fill the spot.
Smith told The San Jose Mercury News earlier this week that Nolan "was trying to undermine me with my teammates. ... Nolan spins it as I was making excuses for an injury. I tried to play on it. And that was my decision and obviously I wasn't playing well enough."
For the Bengals, free safety Madieu Williams (thigh, quad) returned to the field Wednesday. Linebacker Rashad Jeanty (knee) did not and it looks like Anderson (knee) is going to miss his eighth straight game because he didn't work for the second straight day. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is thought to be in good shape, but he wasn't on the field at the beginning of the workout.
Lewis allowed he'd like to see the Dolphins win a game before the Bengals play at Miami in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale.
Anderson was also very passionate Wednesday about the possibility of the Falcons hiring an African-American head coach in his adopted home of Atlanta. Anderson believes there are several qualified candidates and counts former Bengals wide receivers coach Hue Jackson as one of them.
"You can't tell me more African-American guys don't have the qualifications," Anderson said. "I don't think (the Falcons) need it, but give it a try. You never had it before and you see a white coach like Bill Belichick has great rapport with African-American players. That's not saying a black coach is going to have better rapport with players.
"At some point an owner has to say, 'Can my head guy relate to my guys and get them to play physically at certain levels?' I think Arthur Blank is an open-minded enough businessman and a good guy to at least give it a shot. That's all I see. I live in the city."
Jackson, currently the Falcons offensive coordinator, has always drawn high marks in the locker room for the way he handled the Bengals' volatile receivers.
"I think Hue's qualificactions are huge," Anderson said. "The things that he did for this team with those receivers and helping Chad (Johnson) and T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) and those guys grow get them to where they are now, that can't be overlooked the things he did in the passing game. And it can't be overlooked the things—however you want to say it—to get African-Americans to respond to him."
Jackson had been considered for the interim head job, but it went to secondary coach Emmitt Thomas, a NFL assistant since 1981.
In thanking their fans and the U.S. Marine Corps, the Bengals announced contributions of 2,017 new toys and $28,900 in cash at the 2007 Toys for Tots collection held at Sunday's game.
"With more than 31,000 children in the 12-county Tri-State area being supported during the holiday season by Toys for Tots the Bengals toy collection is one of our largest. We are very grateful for all the contributions," said U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Jason M. Ernst.