OWINGS MILLS — The bitterness at having his contract abruptly terminated after refusing to accept a pay cut and demotion, the anger at allegedly having disinformation fed to Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown about his health and the collective misery from over a decade of losing football games are no longer part of Willie Anderson’s life.
The Baltimore Ravens’ veteran offensive tackle hasn’t forgotten the multiple issues that pervaded his dozen years in Cincinnati, but it no longer consumes him.
Especially since the Ravens (7-4) are chasing a playoff berth with Anderson installed as a capable starting right tackle while the woeful Bengals (1-9-1) have become a laughingstock in NFL circles as the only AFC team to already be eliminated from playoff contention.
As Anderson returns to Cincinnati for the first time since being cut from the team in August and signing a three-year, $11 million contract with Baltimore, he isn’t reveling at the Bengals’ downward spiral.
"Everybody called me this season, saying ‘I’m sure you’re happy with what they are going through,’" Anderson said. "I would say, ‘No, I’m not because for years I went through it, too.’ I went through some of those bad times and I know exactly what they’re feeling. When they’re not playing the Ravens or divisional opponents, I’m cheering for them because I want them to do good.
"I’m not saying if they would have kept me things would have been different, but I know there are some things I could have brought to the table. I’m even happier that I’m here. I’m very, very happy that I’m here."
For Anderson, the back story to his arrival in Baltimore involves reaching a career crossroads after 181 career games, 173 starts and a 116 consecutive game streak that ended on Oct. 14, 2007 against the Kansas City Chiefs due to knee and foot injuries.
Anderson pondered retirement when the Bengals offered him a restructured contract at a significantly lower salary. It was a take-it-or-leave it offer.
So, he left rather than remain in the city where he had business interests, including a restaurant, and had planned to retire.
Anderson became incensed when he returned from Atlanta to get outfitted with orthotics for his aching foot and was put on the spot by management.
"It kind of startled me because it happened quick," Anderson said. "They called me and said you’ve got to make a decision today. I was like, what? It kind of happened fast, but my thing was that the information they were given about me was wrong. I was hoping that they might have given me a chance to prove myself to prove that the information that was given to management and coaches was wrong, that I could still play.
"Yeah, I’m banged up, but I was banged up for seven, eight games. Before that, I played 116 straight games. Once you reach a certain age, they start to question certain things. At that point, I wanted to leave and see something different and how the rest of the NFL is. So, that’s my luck."
Anderson chose the Ravens over the San Diego Chargers, opting to play in Baltimore because he had always envied the Ravens organization from afar, admired former offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and was intrigued by new coach John Harbaugh.
He also acknowledged that he wanted to get a shot at the Bengals twice annually.
In Baltimore after adjusting to a change of scenery, Anderson has emerged as the wise leader of one of the youngest offensive line in the NFL.
At first, it wasn’t a completely smooth transition to his new environment.
"Just seeing that I had to come here and reprove myself to all the coaches because the things that were said about me once I left Cincinnati were that I couldn’t play anymore, I couldn’t even walk anymore, can’t practice, and that was all a lie," Anderson said. "It was tough that first month and a half, but once I got through it my teammates embraced me and they really pulled me through it."
After being held out of the Ravens’ season-opening victory over the Bengals, he has started six games and appeared in nine. He missed the Ravens’ loss to the New York Giants with a sprained right ankle.
"He’s done a great job with leadership, no question," Harbaugh said. "With a young offensive line, Willie has schooled those guys up not just on technique, but work ethic and taking care of themselves. But he’s also a very good player.
"I’m sure glad we have him. With the injuries that we’ve had with our tackles and just the fact that he’s such a good football player and has played so well, he’s been a huge addition to our team."
"The leadership quality Willie has brought to our team is invaluable," center Jason Brown said. "Ozzie Newsome was smart enough to bring in someone of that stature, and I’m just glad he’s a part of our team."
In his 13th season, Anderson has provided solid technique and a strong push upfront. The 6-foot-5, 340-pounder may have lost some quickness, as evidenced by allowing three sacks to Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, but still gets the job done through his experience and toughness.
Being around younger linemen like Brown, tackles Adam Terry and Jared Gaither and offensive guards Ben Grubbs, Chris Chester and Marshal Yanda has invigorated the 33-year-old, who has bonded with offensive line coach John Matsko.
"These guys all revived me because I was kind of down at first,” Anderson said. “Seeing their youthful spirit and the way they saw things, that revived me. And being able to watch them and be a part of them is a good thing for me."
Anderson said he has nothing to prove to the Bengals, emphasizing that he has already displayed that he can still play the game at a high level.
As far as his former teammates are concerned, Anderson’s capabilities should never have been questioned, or his ability to gauge between the Ravens and the Chargers’ prospects.
"When big Willie left, I was kind of upset about it that he was leaving, Willie is like a big old teddy bear, he’s cool," Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "He was the face of the Bengals for a while. He was the mouth of the Bengals, even being a lineman. He never shied away. Willie likes to talk.
"When he was deciding what he was going to do, I said, ‘If you want to win, why are you thinking about going to Baltimore? Why wouldn’t you go to San Diego?’ I told him yesterday, ‘You’re almost a prophet,’ because when he went to Baltimore he said, ‘T.J., we can win here. With these guys on defense, we can win here.’ And he’s right. Look at the record of Baltimore and look at the record of ours and San Diego. I’m glad he’s had an opportunity to go to the playoffs."
Anderson is expecting to experience a surge of emotions when he touches down at the Cincinnati airport, a feeling that could be magnified when he exits the visitors’ locker room at Paul Brown Stadium for the first time ever.
"Until I get there, I’m going to try to keep it as regular a week as I can," Anderson said. "I’m sure when I get there and once I land and see the city and come in from the opposite side of the stadium, I’m sure there will be a rush of emotion at some point."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.