Willie passes the baton

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Offensive line coach Paul Alexander welcomes back his greatest player at training camp next week.

The Bengals open what promises to be a Throwback Training Camp Thursday when the veterans join the rookies at Paul Brown Stadium in preparation for Friday's first day of practice.

When the weekend clears, the Bengals expect one of their all-time greats, Willie Anderson, to appear at Monday's practice and begin working for a few days with the offensive line for the first time since he left eight years ago.

Also expected to stop by camp surrounding his Aug. 4-7 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame up the road in Canton, Ohio is Kevin Greene, the NFL's third-leading sacker of all-time who played for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis during three seasons when Lewis coached the Steelers linebackers in the early 1990s.

Anderson, a 1996 first-round pick who went on to make four Pro Bowls while becoming the franchise's all-time right tackle, plans to work primarily with another highly promising big man drafted 19 years later in the first round.

Or, as Anderson prefers, he's the second greatest offensive lineman in Bengals history.

"(Anthony) Munoz holds that down," he says. "He's like Jordan."

Anderson is trying to pull an Obama. He has always praised incumbent right tackle Joe Waller for taking him under his wing when he arrived and now he'd like to pass the baton, albeit eight years later.

He has yet to see Cedric Ogbuehi on film, but the sophomore groomed to make his first NFL start at right tackle against the Jets in the Sept. 11 opener comes with a heady, almost mystical endorsement from offensive line coach Paul Alexander.

"I could tell you what Paul told me, but it would put too much pressure on the kid," Anderson says. "I just know Paul really loves the kid. And when Paul loves a tackle like that, that guy turns into the guy. It happened with me. It happened with Levi (Jones). It happened with Andrew (Whitworth). What I understand is he's one of the most athletic guys they've ever had up there. There are just some things they want to clean up."

Lewis has been blessed with some gifts during his 14 seasons on the job. Three of the biggest are always having a franchise quarterback and high-level tackles protecting him coached by Alexander, a steady 21-year hand who grew into a guru while he and Anderson learned the pro game together.

In Lewis' 208 regular-season games as Bengals coach, just four guys have started the bulk of the games at left and right tackles. Jones (75) and Whitworth (110) have worked 89 percent of the games on the left side and Anderson (69) and Andre Smith (73) have started 68 percent of the games at right tackle.

They're so confident that Ogbuehi is ready to join the group and replace Smith (a free agent in Minnesota) that you don't even hear a hum about him heading into camp.

 That so-called camp buzz is reserved for the uncertainty at wide receiver (what happens behind A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell?), the revamped defensive coaching staff (what's old is new again), and the angst over missing two of their best players on either side of the ball for possibly the first month of the season (Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert and defensive captain Vontaze Burfict).

"I would tell the kid to study himself. Be yourself. Know your weaknesses," says Anderson, still a devout fan of mob movies. "Study yourself like an opponent studies you. When an assassin gets ready to assassinate somebody, he studies their moves."  

Anderson, 41, has remained an Alexander disciple.  They've stayed in touch helping each other with coaching videos and clinics for young players and this camp is another spot for them to mutually benefit. This, it seems, is the profession they have chosen.

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Andrew Whitworth watched Anderson plenty, just like Cedric Ogbuehi says he's watching Whitworth.

"I don't want to be a coach, but I love teaching how to play the offensive line," Anderson says. "Coaching is judged by wins and losses. I get judged by how much I make a guy better. Eventually I'd like to be consultant for NFL teams helping out a guy like Paul."

The Willie Anderson Linemen Academy in Atlanta that he runs with the help of  pass rush professor Chuck Smith is in its infant stages and he wants to learn more about the center position, the one line spot he never played. Alexander, recently honored by Sports Illustrated  as its offensive line coach on a Pro Bowl coaching staff, is looking for Anderson to be around Ogbuehi for a couple of days so he can just get a whiff of how it's done.

"What makes Paul a great coach is that he listens to players," Anderson says. "Most offensive line coaches want it their way or the highway. He would tell guys to watch me do some things and not watch me do other things because I was the only one that could do them."

So next week won't be all that different than it was at Anderson's last Bengals training camp at Kentucky's Georgetown College in 2008.

 "Paul made it mandatory in our offensive line room to help each other," Anderson says. "We found out that was pretty unique when other guys came in from around the league. They'd see guys like Richie (Braham) and Levi help out guys like Andrew and they'd tell us we're basically teaching them to take our jobs. But we never saw it like that."

If there is anyone whose career defines how much training camp has changed, just look at Anderson's run. This is back when the Bengals went away to camp for two-a-days and Anderson was the last of the breed that actually stayed in the 1950s-style dorms at Wilmington College during his rookie camp.

"I'm looking forward to seeing how much they've done up there," Anderson says. "I hear they've done a lot to the stadium."

Told the Bengals now have a cafeteria in place of the old weight room that has been moved and is 60 percent bigger than the old weight room, Anderson could only say, "Wow."

He has been back only once since that awkward '08 camp. Injuries cut his previous season to seven games and when the Bengals made his backup, Stacy Andrews, a franchise free agent, Anderson had just turned 33 and felt he was heading into camp as a backup for the first time in his life.

He was released on Cutdown Day and in a surreal pre-game moment in Baltimore less than a week later he was helping the Ravens defensive line get ready for the Bengals' looks just before the '08 opener.

"I was mad for a year," Anderson says. "I was mad at Paul and Marvin. But it worked out for the best. I went to a team that came within a game of going to the Super Bowl in my last year and I made the same amount of money. I realized that I wasn't the same player and that all things end and that was just the time for my end in Cincinnati.

"I never had anything against Mr. (Mike) Brown," Anderson says. "I tell people all the time, how can I get mad at a guy that gave me three contracts? The last one when I was 31?"

Anderson read reports this week that Brown is mulling honoring former Bengal greats in some fashion during next season's 50th year celebration.

"That would be great," Anderson says. "My one regret is that I didn't retire. That I didn't retire and go back on the field and say good-bye to the fans one last time … The Bengals are my team. I root for them. I consider myself an all-time Bengal."

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The plan is for Ogbuehi to make his first NFL start in this season's opener.

Believe it or not, that little kid that Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn kept entertained before the 2000 news conference where Anderson became the NFL's highest paid tackle ever at the time is now a freshman wide receiver at Georgia Tech.

So instead of going to his practices and doing what he did last season and coaching his son's offensive line, Anderson is reaching out to who calls. Recently the Chargers' D.J. Fluker, a fellow Mobile, Ala., product, approached him looking for help, as well as some players looking to catch on in the league.

"You know me. I've always been an advocate for getting linemen more fame and popularity," Anderson says. "I tell parents all the time, if quarterbacks are getting specially coached in sixth, seventh, eighth grades, why not lineman? A kid who is 6-3, 220 pounds is going to be a Division I prospect more than a 5-6 eighth grade running back scoring four touchdowns a game.

 "Quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs get all the attention," he says. "I've seen kids driven out of the game because of over-zealous coaches who don't know anything about offensive linemen."

Anderson admits it's a different game than the one he dominated. The running game is relatively non-existent.

"Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league when I was playing and he still is. How does that happen?" Anderson asks. "You remember? From 1996-2007 if Corey (Dillon) or Rudi (Johnson) had a game they didn't get 100 yards, we'd get killed in the media. The offensive line would get killed.

"Pro offensive line coaches are mad there aren't guys like Whitworth coming out of college," he says of the ability to both run and pass block. "I don't think guys try as hard on running plays now."

Whitworth, coming off a Pro Bowl season at age 34, is one of two players who were here in '08. Nose tackle Domata Peko is the other.  Anderson is a huge admirer.

"I tell all my young guys that he does a lot work with little freaking effort. I mean, he goes 'Bup … hhhr,' and he gets the guy blocked," he says, providing his own sound effects.  You see some guys every play they use up 100 percent of their energy. He uses very little energy and after the play he's laughing or smiling. I see most guys huffing and puffing. That's a big-time trait if you can play offensive line with a calm demeanor."

Anderson says Whitworth is an underrated athlete as well as a smart player that knows his foes. And that's what he'll tell Ogbuehi. Watch Whitworth the way Anderson watched Walter his first two seasons in the league.

"I'll always be thankful for how he helped me," Anderson says. "Joe was crafty. He wasn't a big guy, but he knew the tricks of the trade. I thought, 'If I can learn that stuff and be 340 pounds, I'm going to be pretty good.'"

He was right. Now he'll pass the baton back where he belongs.

 

Cincinnati Bengals host Pre-Training Camp media luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium.

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