EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Before everyone crucifies Andy Reid for waiting until December to utilize the running game, consider for a moment this one crucial fact:
Brian Westbrook finally is healthy. He's not dying out there on the field, unable to put one foot in front of the next. He actually has some hop to his step, can bounce off defenders and not bite the turf, and can turn a nothing gain into a game-changer.
In essence, Westbrook is back to being the Eagles' best player, that one guy opposing teams fear, and the player around whom the Eagles should (and yesterday did) structure their offense.
Yes, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and by extension the head coach, had to commit to Westbrook and the running game, and the weather dictated that they do just that. But Westbrook had to produce, and because he is as healthy as he's been this season, Westbrook did just that and helped the Eagles literally run over the New York Giants, 20-14, to win a game they absolutely had to have.
Now 7-5-1, the Eagles have life again. They look like a team that could make the playoffs. The odds and the standings are still very much against it - and really, if you can't beat Cincinnati, you shouldn't be in the playoffs - but thanks to No. 36 and a commitment to the run, the Eagles are in the discussion, at least for another week.
Today at Giants Stadium, the Eagles made one of the league's stingiest defenses look lackluster and ordinary. They did it at first with baby steps, then with bigger gains, and finally, toward the end of a horribly cold and windy first half, with a 30-yard run that was vintage Westbrook.
The Giants hadn't allowed a running back to gain 100 yards all season - Cleveland's Jamal Lewis did the most damage in Week 6, rushing for 88 yards in New York's only other loss - until Westbrook. He had a career-high 33 carries for 131 yards, including that second-quarter rushing touchdown. Westbrook also caught six passes for 72 yards and another score, bringing his total in the last two games to six touchdowns.
Westbrook is back, and just in time.
"When he's healthy, I think he's one of the great players in this game," Mornhinweg said. "We miss him when he's not completely healthy."
Really? Hadn't noticed that one.
Westbrook insists that God took care of his various ailments - the chronic left knee, his sprained right ankle, his sore ribs - and that has allowed him to return to the player he was last season. Whatever the reason, Westbrook's teammates have noticed the change.
He hasn't practiced much these last two weeks, and yet Westbrook has walked around the NovaCare Complex with a confidence that had been lacking.
"Westbrook's kind of a cool cat," guard Todd Herremans said. "But he's had a little bit more of a smile on his face lately."
As he did before the Arizona game on Thanksgiving, Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder gave Mornhinweg a positive report on Westbrook 90 minutes before kickoff. With the weather as blustery as predicted, Westbrook's status was welcome news.
Westbrook said he is habitually on the coaches to stick with the run, that a 2- or 3-yard gain is not, in fact, a loss but a gain that just might develop into something down the line.
That was the case today. Three of Westbrook's first six runs went for negative yards. Of his first nine carries, only one went for a first down. And still, with two minutes left in the first half, there was Westbrook running into a sea of Giants, getting a crucial block from fullback Kyle Eckel, and then bursting through the line for what turned into a 30-yard touchdown run.
"It was one of those days we were able to run the ball successfully early, and Coach stayed with it," Westbrook said. "He was very committed to it. I give a lot of credit to him, because usually we're not that committed to it, but he saw that we were getting it done."
Early in the fourth quarter, Westbrook turned another routine play into a 40-yard touchdown reception. After seeing that DeSean Jackson had occupied the Giants safety and cornerback on a route, Westbrook altered his pattern, catching Donovan McNabb's eye. McNabb got the ball to a wide-open Westbrook, who streaked in front of Antonio Pierce into the end zone for an easy score.
And then, lo and behold, the Eagles had another win. Crazy how the combination of a healthy Westbrook and a patient play-caller can work, even against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Now, Andy, looking ahead to next Monday night against Cleveland, you might want to run the ball because, in case you didn't notice, your back is back.