There's a reason to keep watching and a reason for optimism. The reason, in both cases, is Brian Collins Westbrook.

It's true that today's game against the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome was stripped of all playoff implications for the Eagles when the Minnesota Vikings beat the Chicago Bears on Monday night.

Westbrook, however, still has a significant personal quest within reach, and it's one that deserves the attention of fans just as much as a baseball player's pursuit of a batting title.

If the 28-year-old superstar running back can duplicate his yards-from-scrimmage average of 145.8 per game in the final two games, he will become the fourth player in the franchise's 75-year history to lead the league in that department.

The last to do it was Ricky Watters in 1996, and when you begin to examine the list of previous leaders in this category, you realize how special a player has to be to accomplish such a goal. Seventeen players who have led the NFL in yards from scrimmage since 1931 are in the Hall of Fame. Some of the more recent names: Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson.

Likely Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson and Tiki Barber have also topped the distinguished list of leaders.

"It would mean a lot to me, especially coming from the situation that I came from," Westbrook said when asked about his pursuit of the yards-from-scrimmage title. "I'm from a Division I-AA school, and a lot of people doubted the things I was going to be able to do when I came out of college. I've been able to evolve in this offense and develop a niche for myself."

Westbrook, forever proud of his Villanova roots, would be the first non-Division I player to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage since the Eagles' Wilbert Montgomery did it in 1979. Montgomery, a sixth-round draft choice by the Eagles in 1977, played at Abilene Christian, an NAIA program in Texas. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,006 in 1979. That still stands as the franchise record. Westbrook can break it with 111 yards today. He has failed to get that many yards just twice this season.

"I think the thing about I-AA players is that almost all of them have a chip on their shoulder," Westbrook said. "A lot of people say you're not good enough to get to the bigger school or your grades weren't good enough or you're too small. I think that allows us to work very, very hard to achieve our goals. I've prided myself on giving all I have, as far as the workouts, to become the player that I want to become."

If Westbrook breaks Montgomery's record today, he will become just the 31st player in NFL history to amass 2,000 yards from scrimmage in a season. Former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil, who coached Montgomery and game-planned for Westbrook, put it in perspective.

"Wilbert Montgomery was a great football player," Vermeil said. "In today's game, you hear the term great used way too often. Brian is a great football player. What does he not do? He's just special."

He is the Eagles' best running back, their best receiving back and their best blocking back, and he's probably in the top five in the league in those categories, too.

Vermeil had to game-plan for Westbrook in 2005, when the Eagles played his Kansas City Chiefs, who shut him down as well as any team, holding the running back to 15 yards on nine carries and 33 yards on six receptions.

"The first thought we had was make sure more than one guy is there to tackle him," Vermeil said. "Once he's in space, he creates more space. You don't see one guy tackle him very often."

Vermeil said Montgomery might have been a better receiver, which is surprising since Westbrook needs just six more catches to set the franchise's single-season record with 89. Wide receiver Irving Fryar had 88 in 1996.

"Wilbert could actually line up and play receiver in the NFL," Vermeil said. "I don't know if Brian can line up and play wide receiver. I know they line him up wide, but I don't know if they do that to ask him to do specific things that only Westbrook can do. We actually asked Wilbert to line up and be a receiver, and he was able to do it."

The most disappointing thing about Westbrook's special season is that it's going to be wasted on a team that can't win more than eight games and will spend next month watching other teams try to reach the Super Bowl. At least when Montgomery picked up his 2,006 yards from scrimmage, the Eagles went to the playoffs.

"At the beginning of the season, you set your goals and, of course, you set your team goals first," Westbrook said. "Then you set your individual goals. It's very important that you achieve your team goals, because then you have a very good shot at accomplishing your personal goals. Unfortunately, as a team, we haven't done the things we needed to get our goals and win an NFC championship. It's disappointing, because I know we have enough players on this team to win football games. But I am happy that I'm able to reach my personal goals."

Westbrook is signed through 2010, surely a reason for optimism as the Eagles get ready to prepare for next season. But it's no secret that he plays a position in which the life span is short because of the brutal weekly poundings. Of the 30 players with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage, only 15 did it more than once, and only seven did it more than twice.

"As a player, not only at my position, you always realize you never know how long it's going to last, and you never know when your last play is going to be," Westbrook said. "I always tell myself to enjoy it and play every play like it's my last. That mind-set has really helped me.

"You can't play 15, 16 years at running back, so you have to pick your battles. You have to definitely try to avoid the big hit, and you have to be blessed to play in the NFL a long time."

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.