After meeting with Andrew Whitworth at the NFL Combine in 2006, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis turned toward offensive line coach Paul Alexander and said: “I don't think we need you anymore."
Lewis was joking, of course. But with good cause. "[Whitworth] was just such a mature person as a college guy coming out, and a guy you hoped you had an opportunity to draft," Lewis said. "And we were lucky enough, fortunate enough to. And he's never disappointed.”
Whitworth is arguably the biggest reason the Bengals haven't disappointed lately, either. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green grab the headlines. But nobody grabs attention in the locker room more than the starting left tackle from LSU. Such has been the case for years.
He's been the Bengals player rep since the lockout and has been a captain since his second season. He's the first to speak candidly on any matter, and he spearheads a locker room atmosphere that has flipped 180 degrees since the toxic days of criminals and reality TV shows. Back in those days, the circus tent used to cover every corner of the Bengals locker room. Drugs and alcohol had Odell Thurman suspended by the league for a year. Repeated violations barred the late Chris Henry for eight games. The Bengals led the NFL in arrests for the decade.
“Since I came here in '06, we laugh about it all the time,” Whitworth said. “(The atmosphere) is not even in the vicinity of the same thing. Not even close.”
Following the disastrous 4-12 season in 2010, the Bengals needed a change. The roster would be gutted and rebuilt. Shenanigans of the past could no longer be tolerated. Whitworth, along with a small band of returning veterans, decided to change the culture.
He officially took over as the loudest voice in the room and delivered Marvin Lewis' message when the coach was banned by labor laws to do so himself. As the team's player representative, he dedicated the time to keep everyone up to date on the situation and answered every question asked.
The result was a playoff season where five come-from-behind wins fueled by team chemistry made the difference. No longer did Lewis worry about policing his players; Whitworth and the veterans took care of it for him.
On a roster where 43 of the 85 players have two years or less experience, his veteran presence has never been more important.
He doesn't scream and yell. That's not his leadership style. He models great effort and makes sure everyone feels welcome.
As camp broke last week, Whitworth treated the entire offense to dinner at one of the most expensive steakhouses in Cincinnati. The bill wasn't cheap, but in his mind cultivating acceptance, especially among younger players, was worth it.
“On a daily basis he does things as the leader of the football team that speaks volumes,” Lewis said. “Not only is he a leader in that way, it's playing, it's also as their player rep. There are lot of things that Andrew is looked to as kind of the mountaintop.”
At 6-7, 330 pounds, he's used to the view, but he's also used to not being noticed outside the Bengals facility. Over the last three years, only one left tackle in football rated better than Whitworth in pass protection (Cleveland's Joe Thomas), according to ProFootballFocus.com. The website ranked him the top overall tackle in the league in 2010.
In his last 48 games -- battling through a division with the likes of Terrell Suggs and James Harrison -- he's allowed but 18 QB hits. Not sacks, hits.
Yet, he's never been named All-Pro. He's never been to Hawaii.
He's also never cared.
“What I care about is if we end up winning it all and being successful,” he said. “I don't worry about what I am ranked or who thinks what about me. I worry about what I can do for this locker room. How I can help us do better. That truly is all I care about.”
Follow Paul Dehner Jr. for Bengals updates on Twitter at @CBSSportsNFLCIN.