Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beal (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andrew_Whitworth.JPG)
I want to be mad at Andrew Whitworth. I want to hold a grudge. I want to be sarcastic and witty when I direct my ire towards the former Cincinnati Bengals legend. But I just can’t do it.
On May 31, 2022, Whitworth appeared on The Pivot podcast with former NFL mainstays Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor to discuss Whitworth’s Super Bowl victory with the Los Angeles Rams, as well as his long and decorated career. The podcast touched on numerous topics, such as family, free agency, meeting his wife, his being named the 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year, but by far, the most interesting tidbit (at least to Bengals fans) was his admission that, if he were to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he would likely do so as a Ram as opposed to a Bengal.
As a diehard Bengals fan, it’s hard to view this as anything other than a slap in the face a la Tommy Pham on Joc Pederson-style. But no matter how much I want to, no matter how much I try to get angry or upset or sad, it just won’t happen. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, I can’t blame Whitworth. As much as he’s meant to the city of Cincinnati, he means just as much to the city of Los Angeles, and to hear him tell it, LA has embraced him the same way the Queen City did.
It’s a tough pill to swallow. As it stands, there’s only one former Bengal to date that has been enshrined in Canton - the venerable Anthony Muñoz, the greatest left tackle who ever lived. Whitworth would have, almost certainly, been number two. Instead, Bengals fans will have to suffer for at least another decade or so before our next Hall of Fame candidate is primed for enshrinement. Given the upward trajectory of this current Bengals’ roster, and the success the team has had already, there may be a few to choose from in the year 2040. But until then, Muñoz remains alone.
But this begs the question: why? Why Los Angeles? Why not Cincinnati? Well, for that answer, let me turn things over to the big man, himself. According to Whitworth, “I think as our time here (in LA) expanded and really what we’ve become to this community and the ways we’ve been able to invest, I think it’s so special to us. That investment in this community and now pulling it off and winning a Super Bowl, I think that we would probably be leaning to retiring as Rams just because of what it’s become to our family and really what it’s become to us to be a part of something bigger than just us.”
I’m not going to lie, it really hurts to hear that, especially knowing how much Cincinnati meant to Whitworth too. He was beloved here, and Cincinnati loved him. There has never, in my lifetime, been a player I’ve been more upset to see leave Cincinnati than Whitworth. That was because, in my eyes, he was a consummate professional, a player who rose up from unknown backup guard to All-Pro and Hall of Fame-caliber left tackle, a man who’s impacted every community he’s been a part of, whether that’s his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, Cincinnati or Los Angeles.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was upset that Big Whit didn’t retire as a Bengal. In fact, it seems Whitworth himself wasn’t particularly pleased with the outcome, either. When asked if he left the Bengals on a good note, Whitworth said, “...it really wasn’t free agency in 2017 that led to me leaving the Cincinnati Bengals, it was the draft in 2016. I had asked them to make me - not let me have to play the last year of my contract without having any clue on what’s going next, and they returned my question with drafting a first round and a second round left tackle. I don’t know how many teams in history have done that, but they did it and that was the reply and so I was not happy about it.”
The draft he is referring to is the infamous 2016 draft class where the Bengals chose Texas A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and Oregon left tackle Jake Fisher. Neither panned out. Actually, let me rephrase that - they were both God awful. Fisher is already out of the NFL, having been last seen attempting a position switch to tight end with the Buffalo Bills. Ogbuehi is still hanging on by a thread to an NFL roster spot, as he is currently a backup with the hapless Houston Texans.
There is no moment in recent-Bengals’ history that so severely set the team back. The selection of Ogbuehi and Fisher not only led to Whitworth’s departure two years later, but also directly led to the firing of longtime Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander in 2017, who had been with the Bengals for 23 years. It also, indirectly, led to the firing of head coach Marvin Lewis, who’s teams stagnated and declined in the two seasons after Whitworth’s departure. Lewis would be fired following the 2018 season, and, well, if you watched the 2021 season at all then you know what the state of the O-line has been since Whitworth walked.
Whitworth should never have been allowed to leave. It was obvious to anyone who had seen Ogbuehi or Fisher play that they were not on Whitworth’s level. It was also obvious to anyone who had seen Whitworth play recently that he still had plenty left in the tank. He was named a First Team All-Pro in 2017 after all, his first season with the Rams.
We were so close to having the storybook ending too. According to Whitworth, the three-time All-Pro wrote a letter to the Bengals’ owner Mike Brown, in which he expressed his disappointment that the team was not treating him better and that he was prepared to repay the prorated amount of his contract and walk away on the spot. Fortunately for the Bengals, Brown came to his senses and both sides avoided the nuclear option with Whitworth signing a one-year extension.
But Brown didn’t go far enough. He should have made Whitworth a promise that he would remain a Bengal as long as he wanted to. That’s the deal he should have made with the Bengals’ legend. Instead, Brown and the rest of Cincinnati waved goodbye to a franchise icon, as the front office and coaching staff began rolling the dice on two unproven third-year offensive linemen. Let me restate for the record: it didn’t work out.
Still, in an ironic twist of fate, had Whitworth never left Cincinnati, the Bengals might never have been bad enough to move on from Marvin Lewis. Zac Taylor might still be coaching in LA with Sean McVay. The Bengals might have missed out on Joe Burrow. Even if, by some miracle, they would have landed Burrow, maybe Burrow never gets hurt and the Bengals out perform their 4 - 12 record in 2020. They might never have been in position to select Burrow’s favorite college teammate Ja’Marr Chase the following year. I’m not implying that Burrow needed to get hurt for the Bengals to be good, merely that his injury, as well as all these other factors, put the Bengals in the position to add some of the most generationally talented players in the NFL - players I am certain will lead Cincinnati to it’s first Lombardi Trophy.
So, I’m not bitter that Andrew Whitworth will most likely enter the Hall of Fame as a Ram. I can’t blame him. Los Angeles valued him the way the Bengals should have, and they were rewarded with a player who is just as special off the field as he is on the field. He is, after all, the 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year. Instead of being upset, be glad that Whitworth still has so much love for Cincinnati, and be glad that one of our own is going to be enshrined one day. He might not have a Bengals’ jersey on when they finish his bust, but his legacy will remain stitched to the fabric of Cincinnati forever. Besides, if you ever feel down about it, just remember that if Whitworth had never left, we might not have had a chance to see Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase turn everything around. Irony never worked out so well.