Longtime Cincinnati Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth shocked quite a few people when he agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Rams on Day 1 of free agency, ending a tenure in Cincinnati that had lasted more than a decade.
But even though the two sides have cut ties, there are no hard feelings, he said.
"Anybody that knows me knows I love Cincinnati, I’m as loyal to them as anyone, it’s still bittersweet of course, but I love challenges," Whitworth said. "I feel like what’s made me the player I am is always being willing to take the challenge. ... I feel like my whole career [has been] a challenge.
"In my mind, taking on a challenge, moving to LA and trying to transform a team into a winner, that’s right up my alley. I love it and I’m excited about it. I’m just hoping I can stay healthy and play a couple more years and have a chance to get these guys in the right direction, whether I get to be part of their end success or not, just the chance to turn this thing around."
Whitworth, 35, knew entering the 2016 season that his time in Cincinnati might be coming to an end. The Bengals were reluctant to give him a new long-term contract in 2015, settling on a one-year extension that would keep him on the team through the 2016 season.
Around the same time, they drafted two tackles in the first two rounds of the 2015 draft. Whitworth had never hit free agency and figured he owed it to himself to listen to any offer. What surprised him was just how much interest he received at his age.
"I was floored and humbled by how many offers we got," he said. "You don’t really know sometimes how much you’re appreciated and looked at across the league until you start hearing that many teams call and make offers."
The door didn't fully close on returning to Cincinnati until late in the negotiating period. Cincinnati offered a one-year deal up to $10 million with incentives.
The Rams and Vikings were the most persistent among the suitors, but it was Los Angeles who wouldn't stop calling, eventually offering a three-year deal worth up to $36 million with $15 million fully guaranteed.
"It just felt cool to be wanted that much and it’s an opportunity for me to go somewhere," Whitworth said. "That’s truly all I can think about, the impact I can make for them over the next couple of years, and not really, whether this other guy is going to play and that kind of deal."
One thing that factored into his decision was a request by the Bengals for Whitworth to move to guard for one game so they could evaluate Cedric Ogbuehi, their 2015 first round pick, at left tackle. Whitworth didn't object, but it was a strange situation to move aside so the team could get a better look at his replacement.
If that happened once, it certainly could happen again.
"I think that’s the first thing that put it in my mind, do I really want to come back to that situation?," Whitworth said. "Because, at any point, next year, I’ve been around the league long enough to know, that investments are investments. If the season went south or things aren’t going how they want, what would be the next question to ask for that situation?.
"I thought it was important to consider that and give it an honest consideration, and not just, I have to stay here because I’m comfortable. And you know what? There’s a lot of veteran players that honestly being comfortable where they play is more important. And that’s just not me."
Still, it wasn't an easy choice to leave. Stay in Cincinnati, a place he and his family loved and knew, or move across the country to a team coming off a 4-9 season?
"I love Cincinnati, I love the city, I love Mike Brown, I love everything about it, but I saw them at a stage where they’re really just trying to hold on to me because I mean so much to them, but really they’re just trying to move forward with Cedric of course," Whitworth said. "Why wouldn’t they be? And he’s a really talented guy who I think will get settled and be a great player. But for me, it was like, man, I’d rather have a situation where I’m with a team that’s like ‘man, we want you to hold on as long as you can.’ Because we want you here."
Whitworth also wanted a fresh start. That's part of the reason he chose a team where he wouldn't be playing Cincinnati twice a year.
"At one point it was just purely loyalty, all you know is Cincinnati and you just need to go back there because that’s all you know," he said. "I started to really open my eyes to man, what a challenge, and a new place, that would be something that invigorates me and makes me want to push even harder and do even more, find some other part of me that I don’t know exists that I can challenge myself to become. And that’s what really intrigued me about the move.
"And then when I realized I was open to moving, and moving on to a new challenge, I really wanted to be away from Cincinnati’s situation. I wasn’t as keen on going somewhere where’d I play Cincinnati and be around it. I wanted to go far away and kind of have a fresh start."
Whitworth will be keeping an eye on the Bengals and rooting for them. He'll just be doing it from afar.