Playing in the NFL to an advanced age is a difficult task. Notoriously, few players remain in the league even three years after signing their first contract. Only a handful of that group last until their 30th birthday – much fewer, say, their 35th. Those that do are typically quarterbacks or specialists – positions where the elite are separated more by mental acuity and consistency than physicality. At any other spot, even the best players tend to fade once Father Time comes for their athletic dominance.

What the Rams’ Andrew Whitworth did in 2018 – starting at left tackle, playing at an elite level, at 37 years of age – is nothing short of unheard of.

For reference, here’s a complete list of active NFL players older than Whitworth, sorted by age:

  • Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri (46 years old)
  • Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson (44 years old)
  • Falcons kicker Matt Bryant (43 years old)
  • Texans punter Shane Lechler (42 years old)
  • Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (41 years old)
  • Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski (40 years old)
  • Dolphins long snapper John Denney (40 years old)
  • Saints quarterback Drew Brees (40 years old)
  • Jets quarterback Josh McCown (39 years old)
  • Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (39 years old)
  • Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (38 years old)
  • Chargers punter Donnie Jones (38 years old)
  • Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (38 years old)
  • Giants quarterback Eli Manning (38 years old)
  • Panthers safety Mike Adams (37 years old)

That’s it. Fifteen players – four quarterbacks, seven specialists, and four of literally anything else. No other offensive linemen; certainly no other offensive tackles. Whitworth was already the oldest player at his position by the time he signed with the Rams back in 2017.

Starting there, however, would be a disservice to Whitworth’s thirteen-year career up to this point – his first Super Bowl berth.

Photo Credit: Bill Feig (The Advocate)

Whitworth’s professional football career began at the 2006 NFL Draft, in the 2nd round, with the Bengals’ 55th overall pick. Before that, he was a fifth-year senior and four-year starter at left tackle for Louisiana State University. Throughout his time at LSU, Whitworth started all 52 games he played in, never missing a game due to injury. He never even missed a practice due to injury – or any reason at all aside from once for graduation ceremonies.

In all those starts, Whitworth played well enough to earn First-Team All-SEC honors in each of his last two seasons. He earned a BCS National Championship ring as a member of the 2003 LSU squad led by head coach Nick Saban. By the end of his tenure, Whitworth boasted a streak of 22 consecutive games started without having allowed a sack.

Once drafted by Cincinnati, it didn’t take long for Whitworth to reestablish himself as a consistent (if not yet dominant) presence. His first start came in his second game in the league – at left guard. With established bookends Levi Jones and Willie Anderson, the Bengals only asked Whitworth to play outside when needed in 2006. He split time between guard and tackle across his rookie season, playing in all sixteen games and starting in twelve.

That was Whitworth’s only year as less than a full-time starter.

Photo Credit: Jeff Swinger (Cincinnati Enquirer/USA Today)

It was also the first of eleven seasons that he ultimately spent in Cincinnati.

By 2007, the Bengals were comfortable with Whitworth handling starter reps at left guard. Eric Steinbach – the incumbent at the position – was allowed to depart for the division rival Cleveland Browns in free agency. Whitworth started all sixteen games in 2007, then another ten in 2008 before an ankle injury cut that season short. While he wasn’t yet compiling individual accolades, Whitworth wasn’t bad in his guard years by any stretch. The Bengals, on the other hand – winning only eight of those combined twenty-six games – certifiably were.

In 2009, Whitworth was relocated from left guard to his native left tackle position. With Jones and Anderson both gone, Whitworth was asked to hold the end opposite from first-round, sixth-overall pick Andre Smith. At least he would two years later – Smith only managed to start five games in his first couple of seasons. In the first of those years, the Bengals managed to win the AFC North with a record of 10-6. At the end of the second, they ranked last in the division at 4-12.

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That was, in many ways, the end of an era in Cincinnati. Several notable names didn’t return in 2011 – quarterback Carson Palmer and receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens among them. In the draft, the Bengals acquired mainstays in receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, and offensive lineman Clint Boling. Cincinnati didn’t just return to the playoffs in 2011, they qualified in each of the four years after. Whitworth missed only two starts through that entire five-season stretch.

Photo Credit: Aaron Doster (USA Today)

Yet, those three players all remain employed by the Bengals. Obviously, Whitworth doesn’t.

Perhaps that isn’t surprising. As integral as he was to the Bengals’ success in those runs to the playoffs, Whitworth’s age far exceeded that of the team’s nucleus. He was always relatively old – even by the end of his rookie campaign, Whitworth’s 25th birthday had already passed. By the end of the 2011 season, he was a 30 years old. At first glance, one would’ve assumed from looking at him that (at least) half of Whitworth’s NFL career was behind him.

That’s part of what makes his accomplishments over that next span so impressive. After 2012, at 31 years old, Whitworth was finally recognized with his first Pro Bowl nomination. After 2014, at 33 years old, the Associated Press voted him to their All-Pro second team. When 2015 concluded, Whitworth earned his second Pro Bowl nomination and a place on the AP’s All-Pro first team.

By that point, however, the Bengals were forced to scout for potential replacements at Whitworth’s position regardless of how well he performed. Taking for granted in the 2015 offseason that Whitworth, then 33 years old, would be around long-term would’ve been irresponsible. They re-signed him to a one-year extension but selected two offensive tackles – Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher – in the first two rounds of that year’s draft.

(Associated Press)

This set the table for Whitworth’s eventual departure from Cincinnati. Already having young players aboard to replace him meant the Bengals’ brass were less invested in extending an aging player’s career. Extensions were no longer negotiated over multiple years at a time, and terms for them became harder to reach.

Whitworth, for his part, netted his third career Pro Bowl nomination in the 2016 season. By the 2017 offseason, the 35-year-old veteran tackle had a reputation as one of the league’s best players at his position. Contract offers that came in from other teams – including but not limited to the Rams – reflected this. Offers on the table from the Bengals reportedly weren’t competitive. At this point, Whitworth was ready to forego hometown loyalty for long-term security and a fresh start in a new city.

After signing a 3-year, $33.75-million contract to join the Rams in Los Angeles, Whitworth immediately lived up to his billing on the field. He returned to both the Pro Bowl and the AP All-Pro first team in 2017 after helping the Rams finish with an 11-5 record. For the 2018 season, Whitworth finished with the 3rd-highest ranking among offensive tackles from Pro Football Focus and the 12th-highest ranking for all offensive linemen. The Rams, of course, racked up 13 regular-season wins before ultimately winning the NFC Championship.

Photo Credit: Steve Luciano (Associated Press)

So what does this upcoming Super Bowl mean for Whitworth?

On the one hand, who can say? Whitworth never won a playoff game in Cincinnati – each of his seasons there were part of the Marvin Lewis coaching era. The Rams were a one-and-done team in the 2017 postseason. Whitworth has already been part of more postseason success this season than through the rest of his NFL career combined. Winning another would be nice, but why shouldn’t he be happy regardless of the outcome Sunday night?

That said, the other hand would call the argument from the first one silly. It’s the Super Bowl. Whitworth is 37 years old; him ever being on this stage again couldn’t be further from a safe bet. He’s here to win – besides, he’s had enough playoff losses already to last him for his career. One Super Bowl win would do a lot to ease the bitterness of those fruitless trips.

Given, it’s doubtful this debate, much less that last thought, has legitimately crossed Whitworth’s mind yet. He’s a pro – he’ll play the game to win and answer those questions later. It’s a media fodder question, relevant to things like Whitworth’s legacy and hall-of-fame candidacy. How much does one ring impact the perception of an NFL player by history? Without one, how much do Whitworth’s superior play and elite longevity stand on their own?

These are still abstract questions for now. For a 37-year-old lineman and the 16th-oldest player in the league, Whitworth isn’t like so many of the players ahead of him in that ranking. He isn’t loudly mulling retirement, let alone already committed to it. His career trajectory, age aside, wouldn’t even suggest that he’s close to it. This isn’t a grizzled veteran ring-chasing on an elite team – this is a man, in the biggest moment of his career, at the top of his game.

It’s hard to recall another NFL player that’s been in the situation Whitworth finds himself in right now. If he and the Rams find victory on Sunday, it’ll be a moment every fan should be able to appreciate.

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