TEMPE, Ariz. Deuce Lutui delivered a strong message to the Cincinnati Bengals as he left their training camp this summer after failing his physical and forfeiting a two-year, 8.75 million free-agent deal.
"I looked them in the face," Lutui said upon arriving back in Cardinals camp in early August. "I was like, 'just understand what's leaving the door and I'll see you guys at Christmas.'"
Lutui will travel with the Cardinals to Cincinnati for a Christmas Eve grudge match against the Bengals. But his message has largely been muted by the fact that he is no longer in the starting lineup.
Once a building block for the Cardinals offensive line, the 2006 second-round draft pick is now backing up right guard Rex Hadnot while playing out a one-year, 950,000 deal.
"This year has been a big-time difference for me," Lutui said Wednesday. "I've always been a starter. This has been an experience and a learning curve."
The central issue for Lutui has always been his weight. Coaches want him to play around 340 pounds. Lutui has always believed he's still effective when he's heavier. He reported to Bengals camp at 381, and that was all Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis needed to move in another direction.
"I think it's important that the free-agency period was different than normal (due to the lockout)," Lewis said. "Normally, you have a guy come in and you put him through his bases physically, he sees the doctors, and so forth, and then you get into negotiating a contract.
"Sometimes this year, the cart got before the horse, and in this case, they made it, I guess, to a contract. But they were always contingent on the players passing physicals. A lot of times doctors that are familiar with their own player will be a little bit more accepting on certain conditions a player has."
Whisenhunt certainly wasn't accepting of Lutui's weight. He made that clear at training camp and through Lutui's demotion to second team.
Hadnot admitted the situation was awkward because he and Lutui are friends.
"When I got here last year I felt an immediate bond with him," Hadnot said. "I've been to a couple birthday parties for him and his kids. You can't help but like him. But work and relationships are two different things."
Hadnot said the two solved the problem through simple communication.
"Training camp nights are long, so we certainly had a couple conversations about it," Hadnot said. "If you take everything as constructive in life, no matter what it is -- criticism or whatever -- it can build you up, and that's what he's done.
"If anything, it's probably motivated him more as a player and as a person."
When Lutui actually turned the corner depends on who you ask. Lutui said he approached the season from the outset with a new purpose, hiring a mental coach to help him focus on weight, his conditioning and his game preparation, while working with the Cards' notoriously tough strength and conditioning coach, John Lott.
It was an admission that he could no longer get by with the same habits he developed at Mesa High, USC and early in his pro career.
"I got away with relying on youth. It took me minimal preparations just to play," he said. "Now we're getting wise and maturing in our bodies. It takes a little more."
Whisenhunt didn't see that commitment immediately this season.
"I feel a lot better about Deuce now than I did early in the year when he was struggling to get down and it was a weekly battle," Whisenhunt said Wednesday. "He's done a very good job the last four, five weeks of being consistent with his weight, and that's what we needed to see. That was a big question about Deuce."
Lutui understands that this offseason is important to his future, but he understood that last summer before forfeiting a little less than 8 million. With one more slip-up, he could permanently tarnish his reputation and what once appeared to be a bright future.
"I've been in the best mental shape and physical shape that I've been in, in a long time. I've really learned the business side of this whole thing and I've moved on," he said. "My mind is no longer in Cincinnati. It's here with the Cardinals. I've got a few more games to be with the Cardinals, so we'll see what happens."
"I guess I'm king of who I am."