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All-Time Unsung Heroes of the NFL – Bengals Edition: Willie Anderson

Every week or so, I’ll be delving into each team’s franchise history to shine the spotlight on a player who hasn’t received the recognition he rightfully deserved. Outside of that fan base. All teams have players who come into the organization, work hard day in and day out, do everything that’s asked of them and ride off into the sunset with little to no fanfare. This series is meant to give these players their due diligence.

Willie Anderson: Good Player, Bad Team

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The idea of the NFL Draft has traditionally been to give the worst teams in the league the opportunity to select the most talented college athletes to improve their squad. This was the case in 1996 when the Bengals, who were coming off of a 7-9 record, selected offensive tackle Willie Anderson out of Auburn University. The idea at the time was to add a cornerstone to the offensive line to help stabilize the offense. Unfortunately, Anderson would be one of the few bright spots on the team during his 12 seasons in Cincinnati.

Rookie Right Tackle Blanks All but the Best

In his first season in the league, Anderson slid into the starting role on the right side of the offensive line immediately and got to work. The  6’5, 340-pound young man made certain that no one was getting to quarterback Jeff Blake. Although Blake was sacked a career-high 44 times in 1996, only one of those came due to a defender beating Anderson.

On November 17 of the right tackle’s rookie season, the 4-7 Bengals trailed the 8-3 Buffalo Bills all game, through no fault of Anderson. The former Auburn Tiger shut out one of the all-time greats for 59 minutes and 41 seconds. But in those final seconds, the league’s all-time sack leader got the best of the newcomer.

“I’m in the huddle feeling pretty good about holding down the great Bruce Smith, a player I grew up watching,” Anderson told Bengals.com. “I’m watching him on the sidelines at the last minute and then all of a sudden I see him throw his hat down and grab his helmet and I’m thinking why is he coming back on the field?”

Who knows why Smith came back into the game with 19 seconds remaining while the Bills led by 14? What we do know is that he got around Anderson to take down Blake for the sack and avoid being shut out by this rookie right tackle.

That sack would be the only one Anderson gave up in his first season in the league.

A Deadly Rushing Attack is Born

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A year after Anderson came to Cincy, the team selected Corey Dillon in the second round of the NFL Draft. Running behind Anderson and company on the offensive line, Dillon would go on to rush for over 1,000 yards for six consecutive seasons to start his career. By the time Dillon left Cincinnati in free agency in 2004, he was (and still is) the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 8,061 yards and 45 touchdowns.

Not only was Anderson adept at defending his quarterbacks, but he created monster truck-sized lanes for Dillon (and other backs) to run through.

While running mainly to Anderson’s side of the line, Dillon was able to put together two of the best single-game rushing performances the league has ever seen. In 1997 he ran for 246 yards against the Oilers. Three seasons later, he set the (since broken) rushing record by gaining 278 yards against the Denver Broncos. O.J. Simpson is the only other back with two of the top twenty highest single-game rushing totals in league history.

Yards like that don’t come without some elite blocking by your offensive line. Anderson deserves as much credit as anyone else for those huge games.

Even when Dillon departed, Anderson and the line continued to push defenses around in the run game with Rudi Johnson leading the rushing attack as the fellow Auburn alum racked up three straight 1,300+ yard seasons.

In Anderson’s twelve seasons with Cincinnati, only three times did a back not eclipse 1,100 yards. Once in his rookie year, once when Dillon got injured in 2003 (and Johnson only gained 957 yards), and once in his final season with the Bengals when Kenny Watson was the starter.

More men have walked on the moon than have gotten a sack against Willie Anderson

You read that correctly. To date, twelve men have stepped foot on the moon. Anderson, who remembers every sack he gave up, puts his total surrendered at 10.

Thirteen seasons in the NFL and he only gave up ten sacks, less than one per season. In the 181 games Anderson played for Cincinnati, he faced 9 of the top 11 sack artists in league history (only missing HOFer John Randle and Demarcus Ware). The lone sack he gave up to the men on that list was to the aforementioned Bruce Smith in his 1996 Defensive Player of the Year campaign.

Anderson faced Terrell Suggs twice a year from 2003 to 2007, when the Raven tallied 45 sacks. In ten contests, he got 0 sacks against the Bengals’ stone wall right tackle. Jevon “The Freak” Kearse, faced Cincinnati six times in his first three seasons, during which he racked up 36 sacks. Can you guess how many he got against Anderson in those six match-ups? Zero.

In just his third season in the league, Anderson shut out Reggie White in a contest the Packers still won handily. But no matter how admirably Anderson played against the best defenders in the league, it was all for naught with the Bengals still losing consistently.

“No one cared. That’s the game Dave Shula got fired,” says Anderson of the Bengals head coach. “Nobody said a thing about going against Reggie White. I guess because we weren’t winning. Nobody was looking to talk about that stuff I guess because we were struggling.”

When Marvin Lewis took over Cincinnati in 2003 and turned the squad into more of a contender than they had been since Anderson’s rookie year, people finally started to notice the stalwart’s greatness.

With the team not posting losing records any longer, pundits and fans saw what a monster Anderson was on the field. He was named to the Pro Bowl four consecutive seasons from 2003 to 2006.

“They were saying at (age) 31 I was getting better,” Anderson says. “I wasn’t. I was doing the same thing when I was 22, 23 years old. People were just starting to notice, that’s all. By then, with Marvin and Carson (Palmer) there, I was the last of a breed.”

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