State Your Case: Willie Anderson

A member of the Cincinnati Bengals' 50th anniversary team

(Published January 2018)

It’s never a matter of right or wrong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process. There are so many more qualified candidates than there are spots in each class that there are never any “wrong” choices.

But the selection process can be a matter or right or left. Especially at offensive tackle. If you didn’t play the left side, you played the wrong side – as Willie Anderson found out during his career. And now in his post career. It’s likely keeping him out of Canton.

Anderson was an elite college tackle at Auburn who became the 10th overall pick of the 1996 NFL draft by the Bengals. He would go on to become the most dominant right tackle of his era. But no one seemed to notice. That’s because all NFL eyes are on the left side.

That’s the quarterback’s blind side. The left tackle serves as his protector. The right side traditionally has been the power side. The tight end also lines up on that side and more bodies over there provide more of a blocking wall in the run game. As the NFL evolved into a game-of-pitch and catch in the 1990 and 2000 decades, the NFL search intensified for pass-blocking left tackles – not run-blocking right tackles. And that’s where the accolades were directed.

The Pro Bowl was meant to honor the best players at each position in each conference. Except that it doesn’t. Anderson played at an elite level for 12 seasons with the Bengals and a final season with the Ravens. But, again, no one seemed to notice. During those 13 years, there were 39 offensive tackles voted to the AFC Pro Bowl team, three each season. Only five of those 39 tackles played the right side.

Anderson was voted to the Pro Bowl three times and Lincoln Kennedy twice from the right side. The other 34 spots went to 10 different left tackles, including Hall of Famers Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf. The four offensive tackles voted to the 1990s NFL all-decade team all played left tackle. The four tackles on the 2000s NFL all-decade team also were all left tackles.

The logical assumption was that the best pass blocker up front lines up at left tackle. And that’s where Willie Anderson has been short-changed.

During his career, Anderson was asked to block three Hall of Fame pass rushers who lined up on the offense’s right side – Reggie White, Michael Strahan and Kevin Greene. He was called on to block four other members of the NFL’s 100-sack club – Julius Peppers, Robert Mathis, Neil Smith and Trace Armstrong.

Anderson also blocked a couple other NFL sack champions, Kevin Carter and Bryce Paup, plus Pro Bowl pass rushers Robert Porcher, Leonard Little, Peter Boulware, Willie McGinest, Cornelius Bennett and Kyle Vanden Bosch, who all brought the heat from the strongside. Yet between 1996 and 2008, only 12 pass rushers beat Anderson for a sack.

“But when you’re losing, no one wants to hear about it,” Anderson said.

And lose Anderson did. He only played on one winning team in his 12 seasons in Cincinnati. He played for four head coaches with nine starting quarterbacks as the Bengals slogged to a 76-116 record. Wrong side, wrong team – a bad combination for tackles who covet a bust in Canton.

Ironically, Anderson was a two-time All-SEC pick at left tackle and spent his rookie NFL season there. But with another capable young left tackle on the roster (Kevin Sargent) and an aging tackle (Joe Walter) on the right side, the Bengals moved the more athletic and versatile Anderson in his second season over to the strong side, where he would remain his entire career.

“I had the arrogant belief I’d show them right tackle was an important position,” Anderson conceded.

Anderson certainly proved his worth to the Bengals. He was selected to their 50th anniversary for his contributions to the franchise. But the last right tackles to be enshrined in Canton as modern-era candidates were Jackie Slater and Ron Yary, both in 2001. The last five offensive tackles enshrined in the Hall of Fame all played the left side.

Anderson fashioned a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. He has been eligible for five years now but has never been a finalist or semifinalist. As the best right tackle of his era, he deserves a Hall of Fame discussion. Election to Canton shouldn’t be as simple as left and right.

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