INDIANAPOLIS - The first word on Willie Anderson's knee was "bad." The second was "bruise." The brief pause between them was too long for Paul Alexander's tastes.
"Bad," the Bengals offensive line coach said Friday, "was the longest three-letter word I'd ever heard."
Hours before they were to start their preseason schedule against the Indianapolis Colts, the Bengals were bracing for a major blow. They feared their formidable right tackle might have sustained structural damage when he went down Thursday at training camp.
Friday's medical reports, however, were reassuring. Willie Anderson would be doubtful next week, but probable thereafter, and should surely be back before the start of the regular season. The time to panic had been postponed.
The time to worry, though, is at hand.
Buckling under the stress
The Bengals have too big a stake in Anderson to be worrying about his weight. He is the primary point of attack in their running game, and a critical component in pass protection. If Anderson's knee problems persist - and his weight makes this more than likely - the season could be compromised. Maybe the big fellow should consider this the next time he lines up for lunch.
Pro football is inherently a fragile enterprise. Guys are going to get hurt, and the good ones are pretty hard to replace. A team loses its quarterback in preseason - as the Bengals did in 1978 - and it is liable to cost the head coach his job.
Some of this is unavoidable. Flab-induced injuries, however, are unforgiveable.
Anderson said he was down to 344 pounds Friday. This, he said, was only nine pounds over his playing weight, and not a great cause for concern.
"Last season I was 330, and I hurt my knee," he said. "I'm a big guy, and I keep falling the wrong way."
Was Anderson's weight the only reason he was walking with a crutch Friday night? Certainly not. Would his knee take less pounding if he were lighter? Almost certainly.
In trying to play his way into shape this summer rather than arriving in camp that way, Anderson increased the risk of a setback. By the time he is again ready for action, his weight problems may well be worse. (The sedentary life - that's my excuse.)
"My advice to any of the big guys is January through July," said Anthony Munoz, whose diet and discipline helped make him the model tackle. "Why wait until training camp to lose 20 pounds? I've never been able to understand why you can't do it from January to July."
Tackle the problem now
The simplest explanation is money. Once a young player has it made, he sometimes struggles for motivation. The Bengals have been battling high draft choices about their calorie counts for at least 20 years. A partial list of weight problems would include Pete Johnson (No. 2, 1977); Freddie Childress (No. 2, 1989); Dan Wilkinson (No. 1, 1994); and Ki-Jana Carter (No. 1, 1995) this past spring.
Johnson never really shaped up, but still performed at a high level. Childress, however, never made it out of training camp. Wilkinson and Carter eventually learned to lighten their loads. Willie Anderson is still young enough to reverse his field on fat. With a five-year contract worth $7.475 million and a leading role on the depth chart, he owes it to his employer and his teammates to arrest his appetite. Top-drawer tackles are too few to be frittered away.
"There just aren't many of them out there," said Mike Brown, the Bengals owner. "You have to have (quick) feet and strength, and it's a critical spot. It's the place where you get the least help and where you come up against the best pass rushers. If you break down (at tackle), you can stall an offense."
The Bengals finished 4-12 the year before they drafted Munoz. Two years later, he cleared their path to the Super Bowl. Willie Anderson starts his second season much less a sure thing.
"You have to be dedicated," Munoz said. "You just have to be. All the great players have emphasized offseason conditioning." Anthony Munoz was a great player. Willie Anderson is a big question mark. Too big for his own good.