THE ONE TIME Brian Westbrook went to the Pro Bowl, it seemed like just about any Eagles starter had a shot at a trip to Hawaii - 10 Birds either were selected originally in that Super Bowl season of 2004 or ended up going as injury replacements. Westbrook was in the latter category, earning his berth only when Seattle's Shaun Alexander pulled out.
This time ought to be different.
Most years, including last season, when Westbrook surely was one of the most dynamic players in the NFL, the Pro Bowl snub has been explained away with a lot of tap dancing about how much of his value comes from catching passes, and how the Pro Bowl berths tend to go to guys who really carry the mail, whose rushing totals dwarf Westbrook's. This season, Minnesota rookie Adrian Peterson is the only runner in the NFC with more rushing yards. (Peterson has 1,200 yards on 198 carries, Westbrook 1,110 on 236.) That alone would put him in pretty good shape, even without the 642 receiving yards, on 74 catches, that give Westbrook the NFL lead in total yards (1,752).
"It's important that you be recognized for your accomplishments . . . by your peers. I think that everybody in the NFL would say that it's important," Westbrook said yesterday, as the Eagles began preparations for this week's visit to the Cowboys. Players and coaches vote this week for the Pro Bowl - fan voting ended last week. "It's not more important than wins and losses, but it's important that people outside of your team recognized the things that you can bring to the game, and that you're a quality player."
In fact, Westbrook has been so dominant, the debate has shifted away from where it was a few years ago - does he get hurt too much, is he a product of the West Coast offense, etc. - to a tack no one would have foreseen, back when the Birds were mounting the commemorative Pro Bowl portraits on the NovaCare walls in bunches.
Now the questions are more like this: Do the Eagles lean too heavily on No. 36? And is his prime being wasted, as the only difference-maker on a 5-8 team that almost certainly isn't going to the playoffs?
"We ask him to do a lot," Donovan McNabb noted yesterday. McNabb said the Birds certainly would benefit from someone else stepping up and making plays, but they also need to go to Westbrook early and often. "This offense asks Brian to do things not a lot of running backs are able to do. That's a tribute to his athletic ability. Catching the ball out of the backfield, running the ball . . . picking up blitzes, whatever it may be. He's a talented guy, so you want to get the ball in his hands any opportunity you can."
Westbrook, who spent the first 5 years of his Eagles career trying to convince management that he could handle a bigger load without breaking down, isn't going to complain now that he has it.
"I wouldn't say that we [rely too much on me]. I think, as a team, you depend on your players to make plays. If you have one guy who makes plays when he has the ball in his hands, then you depend on him a little bit more," Westbrook said. "Much of the Giants' defense was shifted toward trying to put two men on me and things like that. They were successful in some instances, and in some instances, they weren't."
That issue of adjustments is a big one, though. If you break it down, Westbrook's effectiveness as a receiver doesn't change much from half to half - 38 catches for 332 yards vs. 36 for 310. But his running numbers are dramatically different. Westbrook has 126 first-half carries, for 639 yards - 5.07 yards per carry. In the second half, he has carried 110 times for 471 yards - 4.28 yards per carry.
Obviously, most teams know when they prepare to play the Eagles that Westbrook is the top priority. As Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said Sunday, "All eyes are focused on No. 36. That's the focus of their offense." But even so, the Birds usually are able to block very effectively for him in the first half. Not so in the second half. You have to wonder, if teams really load up to stop Westbrook's running after halftime, why aren't the Eagles able to take advantage of that by getting the ball to other players?
"I think Marty [Mornhinweg, the offensive coordinator] does as good a job as he can to counter those things," Westbrook said. "Teams do a lot of different things throughout a game . . . you're always trying to counterbalance the things that they're doing. I think Marty is a very good offensive coordinator who tries to do a lot of different things throughout the game. He has to be on his toes at all times. I think, just like a player, he has some bad plays, where he would have wanted to call something different, the same way that I wish I had some plays back so I could do something different. Nobody's going to be perfect throughout the game, and have perfect play calls throughout the game. He's not going to be perfect, and none of the players is going to be perfect, either."
One play Westbrook wishes he had back from last week is his third-quarter fumble, which led to the Giants' only touchdown. Westbrook had gone 555 touches, more than a full year, between turnovers. Yesterday, Westbrook reiterated that losing the ball "cost us the game."
"It's disappointing to me that I let my team down in that way," Westbrook said. "I think you have to pay a little more attention to your ball security. On that play, I didn't have terrible ball security; it was just one of those instances where the guy [Justin Tuck] got his hand in there."
Westbrook might not be terribly happy with the 5-year, $25 million contract he signed 2 years ago, but he said yesterday he is not unhappy to be an Eagle, even with the rest of the team struggling through his career year, even though he is 28 at a position where post-30 success is rare.
"No, I don't think it's being wasted," Westbrook said. "I'm a key part of helping this team win football games. When everything gets back to moving the way we need it to - moving in the same direction, winning football games - I'm going to help this team win. Hopefully, that starts soon." *