T.J. Houshmandzadeh knew Rudi Johnson wasn't his teammate any more as he walked in the players' parking lot at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday afternoon. He had to do a double take when he heard the next name.
"What about him?" asked Houshmandzadeh.
Yes, Willie Anderson is no longer a Cincinnati Bengal. Not after Saturday when the Bengals released the player that had been the foundation of the franchise for the past 12 seasons. Anderson and Johnson were among the 22 moves the Bengals made in order to get their roster down to the NFL limit of 53 players. There are likely to be more moves Sunday after the team scans the waiver wires for players released by other teams.
The rule of thumb is: if a player is better than your No. 53 player go get him.
NFL teams are also able to solidify their practice squads of eight players this afternoon. But the releases of Anderson and Johnson, as well as 10-year veteran cornerback Deltha O'Neal, were the headlines of Saturday's cuts.
"Obviously the big news for (the media) is the waiving of three players who have logged significant playing time since I've been here, particularly in '05 and '06," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "The play fell off in '07 and we just haven't seen a lot of change thus far this year. It's kind of a hard decision to make but it is the decision we made at this point and we'll go forward."
The three players combined to earn six Pro Bowl berths the past five seasons, including four by Anderson. The man who had a streak of 116 consecutive starts at right tackle snapped last season when foot and knee injuries caught up with him had also been named first team All-Pro by the Associated Press the previous three straight seasons.
The Bengals asked Anderson on Friday to take a pay cut for this season. He was due to make $3.15 million as part of the contract extension he signed in 2006 that was to go through the 2011 season. He played in just seven games last season, however, with Stacy Andrews replacing him. The Bengals were so adamant about keeping Andrews that they tagged him as their franchise free agent, meaning they had to offer him a one-year contract worth the average salaries of the top five offensive linemen in the league, which was $7.455 million.
With Anderson gone, the Bengals are almost assuredly going to increase their efforts to re-sign Andrews to a long-term deal.
"I want everyone to understand and clearly know that this had nothing to do with my ability to play," Anderson told JungleInsider.com. ""They weren't comfortable with two guys making big salaries at the same position."
Anderson did not play in the preseason finale at Indianapolis last Thursday because of issues he had with his footwear. He has specially made orthotics that weren't fitting him well. He was in Atlanta having new ones made when he got the call from the Bengals. Anderson and his agent sent the Bengals a counter offer but the team rejected it. That's when his days in Cincinnati came to an end.
"It was stressful trying to prove to people the last couple of years that I could still play, especially when every time you turned on the radio or TV or saw the paper it seemed like they were saying I was done," said Anderson. "That wore me out the last two years. The only thing I've wanted to do is play football at a high level and be a team leader.
"I'm not mad or bitter. I'm disappointed in the timing but I had 12 productive years with the Bengals."
Anderson wasn't sure he wanted to continue playing football in Cincinnati at the end of the 2002 season. The Bengals had finished 2-14 that season, the worst record in franchise history. Marvin Lewis was hired less than a month after the season ended. Anderson was rejuvenated and played a key role in helping the Bengals turn from NFL basement dwellers into a division winner in three seasons.
Even though the team has slipped back the past couple of seasons, Anderson's influence has been a big factor for the organization.
"Willie was a guy who had been here for a while, so when he spoke you would listen after a while," said Houshmandzadeh. "At first you'd be like "Ahh, Big Will be quiet" but he's been here for a while and I was telling him not too long ago that the more he talked the more I began to listen because what he was saying was true."
While Lewis attempted to keep Saturday's cuts as being part of the business of football, he did speak about not having Anderson on a personal level.
"He has been significant to me," said Lewis. "He has been significant to this organization, beyond me. We'll see what happens. It may not be over. We'll see where we're headed. It gives those guys the opportunity to see if there is some value around somewhere else, and look at that, which is fair, and go from there."
In the end the bottom line in the NFL is that a team has to make the decisions it best feels will help it win games. The Bengals haven't done that very well since going 11-5 in 2005 and reaching the playoffs.
"On Sunday when I have to put 45 guys up and running, you have to have some roles," said Lewis. "So we have to make sure the 53-man roster also reflects what's going to be up and active on Sundays."