To hear Willie Anderson speak it's a surprise there wasn't a cane or walker waiting for him at his locker this week. If nothing else it would have been a funny gag on the most senior of Bengals.
"Some people were wondering if I could still walk," said Anderson. "I came back to show them that I can walk and run a little bit."
Anderson is back at Paul Brown Stadium this week working with his teammates for the first time this offseason. He has been dealing with undisclosed family issues this offseason but he's returned to refute any notion that his career is done after 12 seasons, the last of which was undoubtedly the hardest professionally. Anderson has been witness to and participated in more losing than any other player the Bengals have but the one constant had always been that when kickoff time came around Anderson's name would be in the starting lineup.
That streak included 116 straight games at right tackle.
The streak ended last October in the fifth game of the season at Kansas City. Anderson started just five games last season among the seven he played. Anderson had just one previous season in which he didn't play in every game; that was in 1999 when he missed two games.
So while he comes back this offseason to find that Stacy Andrews has the current upper hand at the position Anderson has so long held down, don't take that being the final word on the situation. The four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection is just as important to this team as he has always been. His head coach and teammates couldn't see it any other way.
"He's a big talk guy and backs it up. That means a lot for us to have Willie back around," said Andrews. "He makes things look like they're second nature to him. I used to get out there and try too hard and that takes a lot out of you. You watch the way Willie does things and everything looks easy to him. He's breathing easy. I try to model myself after that."
The Bengals used their franchise tag – worth $7.455 million for one season – to retain Andrews, a former fourth-round pick who played in just five college games but has been successfully transformed into a starting offensive lineman. He is going to be starting somewhere along the line this season. The Bengals would like to sign Andrews long-term and allow him to be their heir apparent to Anderson on the right side.
Whether that takeover begins this season remains to be seen.
"Right now Stacy's the right tackle. We told Willie that since we aren't sure where he is with things and Stacy finished the year there, we'll see what happens," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "Willie wants to be a starter. He's been a great player. He maybe didn't get the recognition until recently, but I think he's been that kind of player for a long time. So, yeah, he wants the opportunity to get back where he belongs. We have to make a judgment on him doing it. We have a lot of faith in Willie."
After battling a foot injury last preseason Anderson suffered a knee injury at Seattle in Week 3 that proved too much to overcome. Andrews started 11 of the final 12 games at right tackle last season. Anderson's last start of the season was against the Jets on Oct. 21 but he took himself out of the game when he felt he wasn't able to perform to the level he believes he needs to be at to help the team. He didn't play again until the final two games of the season in wins against Cleveland and Miami.
With the injury came public wonderings if Anderson's playing days were finished.
"It was real trying because that was the first year in a while that my credibility was tested," said Anderson, who is tied with former kicker Jim Breech for sixth on the franchise's all-time games played list with 181 appearances. "It shocked you a little bit but a lot of things can't shock you in the league. Everybody is replaceable. People criticized Carson last season so if Carson got criticized last season no one on the team is shielded from it. He's getting the kind of heat he took last season in particular because people around him didn't play at a high level ourselves, but last season was hard because I went from playing a bunch of games to being a sideline observer. That hasn't happened ever in my career."
The first unit offensive line has been a different sight during this offseason's OTA practices. Andrews has been at right tackle next to right guard Bobbie Williams. Eric Ghiaciuc is at center, with Andrew Whitworth at left guard and rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Collins running at left tackle in place of Levi Jones, who has stayed away from the voluntary workouts. Anderson expects to work his way back into the group at some point before the regular season begins.
"Last year I didn't know what was going on with my foot. It's taken a year for me to understand what things I need to do physically (to stay in condition)," Anderson said. "I'm at the age right now where I don't have to go run 10 100-yard wind sprints to get in shape. There are other things I can do that can save me and preserve me… I'm not going to do the same as this young kid Collins is going to do. He's 21, 22 years old and he can run wind sprints. Me, I can do different things and still be in shape.
"I did that in '05 when I had the microfracture knee surgery with (assistant strength coach) Ray (Oliver) and I did it again in '06 with Ray and those both were Pro Bowl seasons. Those were years that I didn't go out and kill myself in the offseason pounding, pounding, pounding and I was able to play at a high level with the same injuries that I have now."
There is one Bengal who has been especially pleased to see Anderson back around. Quarterback Carson Palmer has done a lot of leaning on and learning from Anderson in his first five seasons. The two are the indisputable leaders of the not just the offense but the entire team.
"Willie's the veteran Bengal, he's everybody's big brother," said Palmer. "I'm just happy to see him back smiling. I know he went through a lot of stuff this off-season and had a couple of bumps in the road, but any time you get big Willie back and see him strutting around the locker room, hanging out in the training room and being out with guys is great."