It wasn't like old home week. It was more like an alumni weekend when the greatest right tackle in Bengals history showed up to help the kids at practice Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Because the kids are still around on campus making it interesting. And while they were infusing newly-retired Willie Anderson with that new blood the Bengals offensive line pumped to an AFC North title last season, Anderson gave them encouraging words in a week he knew they needed to hear them.
He honored center Kyle Cook with a Rich Braham comparison. He says Andrew Whitworth, his torchbearer on this offensive line with smarts and a Pro Bowlish two sacks allowed in his last 40 games, is a top five left tackle. After working with Andre Smith for the first time Wednesday, Anderson says the man that should be his replacement has a bad rap as unenthusiastic and unmotivated and that he showed plenty of initiative with his stream of questions.
Of course, after last Sunday's 20-7 win in Carolina in which the offense managed just two touchdowns despite getting four turnovers and an average drive start near the 40 while quarterback Carson Palmer took a few shots and the Bengals had less than four yards per carry, the line is under the gun.
"For some reason," Anderson said after he left the practice field, "this city is infatuated with jumping on the offensive line. Do you think the Bengals offensive line is worse than the Chicago Bears? Come on. No. When the Bengals are winning, the offensive line is never talked about. Play bad, oh it has to be the line. Last year they were key. Bad things were supposed to happen. But they all worked their tail off and this year they're 2-1."
Anderson and the Bengals decided to duct tape the four-time Pro Bowler's business trip to Cincinnati with practices Wednesday and Thursday so he could work the young right tackles trying to replace his ample legacy. After Anderson, 35, the 10th pick in the 1996 draft, walked out on the practice field with Bengals president Mike Brown chatting about his son's seventh-grade football team as the team stretched, Anderson broke down with the linemen. Wearing a black Bengals T-shirt and black shorts, he took incumbent Dennis Roland, and challengers Andre Smith and Anthony Collins to the side.
"When I was talking to Mike he was telling me he thought I could help the young guys with what they're experiencing," Anderson said. "It was fun. Really, it's the first time I've been back on the field since the (2008) AFC championship game. I saw some old faces and there were new faces, too."
Anderson decided not to play a 13th season with the Bengals when he refused to take a pay cut on the eve of that '08 run and opted for the AFC North rival Ravens that lost to the Steelers in that AFC title game. But on Wednesday these were his guys. And he loves them.
Andre Smith was in college and Kyle Cook was scraping to make the team when Anderson left. Whitworth was a third-year disciple of Anderson when he left. No right guard played next to Anderson longer than current starter Bobbie Williams and for old-times sake they lined up next to each other Wednesday and showed the kids how they handled stunts and games.
Anderson dares to invoke the legend of long-time Bengals center Braham when talking about Cook.
"If Kyle Cook was playing when I was here, I'd still be playing here," Anderson said of the second-year center. "He's smart. He's tough. He's a fighter. He even looks like Richie Braham. I watched those games last year and saw his surge and he was doing that against the AFC North. That's Richie Braham."
If Anderson has a torchbearer on this line, it is Whitworth. Along with Williams, it is Whitworth that he texts and talks to most frequently.
"He's that one dominant guy, the guy that grades consistently high and he understands football," Anderson said. "And the biggest thing is, he doesn't get beat and he gets good push in the run game. I would say he's a top five guy."
But it was Roland, Smith and Collins that Anderson was there to help. Call it a good practice because Anderson wants to form an "Offensive Line University" in Atlanta as well as a scholar-athlete handbook. He'll be shooting part of an instructional DVD at PBS Thursday.
The trio of right tackles runs the NFL gamut. The 6-9 Roland, who arrived four days after Anderson left, went from being cut five times to being the starting right tackle for this past season's AFC North champs. He's coming off a game he really struggled in pass protection. Smith, a top 10 pick from 2009 who has been hobbled by foot problems and weight issues for much of his career, is coming off a benching. Collins, a fourth-round pick from 2008, saw his most action as a rookie and he's playing less than he did last season.
Anderson wasted no time sitting down with Roland before practice to watch some tape.
"I told him that I equate tackles to DBs; you've got to have a short memory," Anderson said. "I saw him stop guys last year. He's got strong hands and he's got long arms. And he wants to do well. A coach's dream. He runs through a wall for you.
"I think Andre's got a bad rap. I had some weight problems my second year, too. It's all about learning to take care of yourself. I had heard he didn't care, but he was very intuitive asking questions. And he'd ask me what I would do in certain situations. How I would attack certain looks. If he just stood there and didn't say anything I would have been nervous. But he wasn't that way at all."
Offensive line coach Paul Alexander can get sentimental about Anderson pretty easily. He says he's had no player before or since who understands blocking as well as Anderson did. Alexander can also fiercely defend his current guys, which he did Monday.
The first thing he wanted to do is absolve Cook of any guilt for Roland's false start last Sunday on the Panthers 5 that ended up in the Bengals getting no points out of the drive. It was Cook that took the blame for the penalty after the game, but Alexander said, "He did it because he wears big boy pants."
Alexander knows Roland had a tough game, but he also said, "I know Pro Bowlers that haven't had good games. He'll bounce back."
Here's one problem in offensive line critiques: Alexander says left guard Nate Livings graded out a 92 for the Carolina game. But the block he missed was the third-and-one. Williams, solid most of the time, got beat for a sack on one snap. Whitworth, who gave up 1.5 sacks last season, allowed a pressure.
Back when Anderson and left tackle Levi Jones played here, Alexander never had to help his tackles in pass pro by chipping with a back or tight end. He hates to do it and it's still not helping his tackles "because usually when you double team an end with a back, it gets fouled up more often than not," he said. But Alexander also admitted if he had to do Sunday over again he would have "game planned it differently."
He's not sure how much an extra blocker would have helped because he said he wasn't getting run by.
"I don't see defensive linemen running clean and drilling the quarterback," Alexander said. "I see us getting pushed back a little bit. I'm not saying that's good enough. It wasn't."
What is good is having Anderson for another day. When Anderson tells the Bengals linemen this is how he does it and it's exactly what Alexander has been trying to get them to do forever, all he can do is laugh.
"It's like your kids listening to other parents, but not you," he said.
Anderson likes how they listen.
"I can see how these guys turned it around last year," he says. "They're strong-willed. I think this pressure on them is going to be good for them."
Perfect for both sides Wednesday. The kids get to see how a pro does it. And Anderson didn't mind reliving the toughest part of being a pro.
"Watching the games on TV on Sundays, you get going when you're watching the guys competing but all of the stuff that goes with it, I don't miss that," he said. "I don't think any player misses that. The fun part is being in the locker room with the guys and doing that but people have to realize that there is a lot more work that goes into being a football player than just playing on Sundays. The working part is what gets you."
Which is precisely why he's here.