19-EEE, Big Shoes to Fill.
August 30th, 2008 saw the Bengals release Willie Anderson, one of the most formidable, recognized and lauded players in their history. A right tackle, he was a five time selection to the Pro Bowl, his size was as massive as his technique was sound. As the #10 pick overall in 1996, he exhibited durability beyond what any coach would expect, playing in 158 of 160 regular season games from 1996-2006, starting 154 of them. Playing in all but 11 games over his 12 seasons in Cincinnati, with 9 of those missed coming in 2007, when his play and arguably his effectiveness was hampered by injury.
Through 2006 and into 2007, “Big” Willie began to have problems with his feet. He had been a picture of resiliency, with just a scoped knee and a few random dings that were on his chart. His feet, though, were a big deal. A right tackle must move, as he moves the left end around the pocket, or as he shifts his focus to the backer standing in his path on an off-tackle run. Feet, more specifically, footwork, is what makes it all possible. Willie has rather large feet, 19-EEE to be exact. Feet that big must be seen to comprehend. At that size, they are more like flippers than feet. And when a foot that big has a problem, it is a big problem. That big problem is compounded by the big-ness of Anderson himself, as what has made him suited for his position, his size, also had contributed to his foot problem.
Addressing his foot problem, what by all accounts was acute plantar fasciitis brought on from an injury sustained in 2006 versus Indianapolis, included therapy and an “Electro-Treatment” to promote healing as well as a series of orthotics. These were designed to alleviate the immense pressure on the foot during practice and play. As recently as last week, Willie had been back to Atlanta to retrieve a new set of orthotics for this ongoing issue.
Willie signed a contact extension of over $32M in 2006 and was paid a $2M roster bonus on January 15th. His salary for 2008 was to be $3.15M. Which begs some big questions: What were the Bengals thinking back in January? Were they sure of his health enough to pay the bonus? Were they minding the “store” enough to even notice/care?
To be sure, Anderson has neared the end of his NFL-career service life. Linemen who play, let alone start, in the league past 10 years is becoming increasingly rare. He is among an elite group of players who have been at the top of their game over an extended period of time. Names like: Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Kevin Mawae, Tom Nalen, Ruben Brown, Jonathan Ogden and Will Shields. Shields and Ogden have just retired, this a result of diminished health which is the side-effect of playing such physically demanding positions.
Some players can keep pushing on, playing in a platoon/rotation at their position but for many of these highly paid players, this option comes paired with a request to renegotiate their contract. This played out in the same way for “Big” Willie. The club asked him to take a pay cut. He countered with another number and they declined and released him. Anderson now must consider his next move, going to a team for a short-term deal likely loaded with playing time incentives as mitigation against serious injury.
Next in line, the Bengals have Stacey Andrews, who was taken in r4 (#123) in the 2004 draft, to play right tackle. He has been groomed for this going on 4 years, spending time at left guard and spelling Willie from time to time. A former track & field athlete in hammer throw and discuss, he only started a handful of games at Ole Miss his senior year. He is about as impressive an athlete there is. Question remains, is he ready to step-up and fill those size 19-EEE shoes left behind by “Big” Willie? He started 14 games last season, mostly at RT while Mr. Anderson battled injury and performed admirably well. So well, he was given the NFL equivalent of capital equipment renting, the Franchise Tag, which will pay Andrews about $7.5M to play for the season.
As Bengal-dom waves goodbye to one of the true “Class Acts”, we are confronted with the idea that our rented right tackle, the groomed and slotted player this team has so heavily invested in to develop, could also exit after 2008 via free agency leaving the club embarrassingly thin at one of the most important positions on the football field. Absent a new contract, Andrews will be in high demand in the open market and will surely be paid a kings ransom for a long term deal by one of the more financially motivated franchises.
The handling of Anderson, paired with the status of Andrews perplexes this Bengals fan. How can a club be so cavalier about releasing such a decorated veteran, locker room leader, stalwart in performance and character? Sure, injuries happen and player’s performance degrades over time but did this team get better by playing it out like this? Does the team’s future at right tackle seem secure with Andrews ready to enter Free Agency in little more than 6 months? To both I’d argue “No”.
No, this team is not “Better” without Anderson. If anything, they would have had Anderson as insurance against Andrew not performing at the expected level this season. Having Anderson as a back-up, even at north of $3M per year would be smart considering who is pulling the trigger at QB and how important it is to protect him.
No, the future at Right Tackle is not secure given this situation. With Andrew Whitworth, an r2 (#55) pick and a very raw Anthony Collins, this year’s r4 (#112) pick, the team has talent but little of it on the right side. Whit has spent time at LG and LT. Collins is a natural LT. Both could develop but, again, in light of who is QB’ing this team, do we feel secure at Right Tackle? Nope.
How the Bengals offensive line performs this season will dictate the success of the offense. It all starts there in the trenches. Since 1996, it all started with Anderson’s size 19-EEE shoes. This year, it is my sense that his shoes will be missed and the player being asked to fill them has quite the tall task ahead of him.