CINCINNATI — It doesn’t get much worse for the Bengals than losing Andrew Whitworth.
The loss is two-fold: Great player, great leader.
My guess coming out of their 6-9-1 season was that the Bengals would sign the 12-year left tackle simply because they could not afford to lose him after taking a huge step back in 2016.
The money the Los Angeles Rams reportedly are giving Whitworth - $36 million with $15 million guaranteed - is steep for a 35-year-old tackle. But Whitworth is coming off a Pro Bowl season and hasn’t missed a game since 2013. Pro Football Focus rated him as the second best tackle in all of the NFL with a 91.3 rating.
“He’s the best pass blocker in football,” offensive line coach Paul Alexander said in November. “I don’t know what cup he’s drinking from, but I want some of it. He’s having a terrific year. He seems to get better every year. It’s crazy. He’s got the technical part of the game down.”
Alexander had no doubt that Whitworth could continue to play at a high level.
“He does because he takes care of himself and there’s no wasted motion,” Alexander said. “Wasted motion against a quick guy and you’re dead. But he’s so balanced and technical ... If you do it right, no one can get by you."
Given the struggles of the offensive line and departure of free-agent guard Kevin Zeitler to the Browns ($60 million, $31.5 million guaranteed, five-year deal), I did not see the Bengals letting Whitworth walk.
But it appears the team is going back to its original plan and counting on either Cedric Ogbuehi or Jake Fisher, the Bengals' first- and second-round draft picks in 2015, to become a solid left tackle.
They weren’t that in 2016. PFF rated Oghuehi 70th best in the NFL at 39.8. Fisher didn’t get enough snaps to qualify in the ratings, but PFF graded him at 43.5.
Ogbuehi started 14 games at right tackle but shared time with 33-year-old Eric Winston in the middle part of the year and then lost his starting job. Fisher ended up taking over at right tackle for the last three games.
The writing on the wall with Whitworth may have come in Game 15. Ogbuehi started at left tackle, Fisher at right tackle and Whitworth at left guard.
Whitworth made it perfectly clear that if he was coming back it was to play left tackle.
The loss goes beyond football. Whitworth was as good a locker-room presence as the Bengals had - a stand-up guy win or lose, someone who the young players could look at and see what it takes to be a professional.
That’s hard to replace, and it’s important, especially for a team with some players - how should we say this - who have been less than shining examples of professionalism.