The Eagles' offense is very much about Brian Westbrook. That ought to be apparent from the way things looked when Westbrook was banged up and limited (the Eagles scored one offensive touchdown in two games vs. Cincinnati and Baltimore) vs. the way things have looked since he started feeling better (91 points scored by the offense the last three games).
But as true as we all know that is, here is something else to contemplate: Suddenly, the Eagles do not have terrible wide receivers. Wideout stinkitude has been an article of faith for Eagles fans in nine of the 10 seasons of the Andy Reid era, interrupted only by the MYOTO (Magical Year Of T.O.).
DeSean Jackson, the rookie who leads the team in receptions and yardage (A rookie! How unAndylike is that?) sure seems to be well on his way to a level unmatched here since Terrell Owens took his popcorn, and his jihadist mentality, to Dallas. Jason Avant, speed-challenged coming out of Michigan in 2006, has sweated and muscled his way into a strong role as a slot receiver, reliable on third down. Kevin Curtis missed the first six games after sports-hernia surgery, and wasn't quite himself for several weeks after he came back. But now Curtis seems to be settling back into last year's smooth, speedy, dependable groove. He's a complementary player, not a star; nonetheless, he's a pretty good complementary player. Hank Baskett, like Avant, lacks speed, but not heart, size or hands.
The group seems to have solidified ever since offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg cut Reggie Brown and, to a lesser extent, Greg Lewis out of the game plan, and clarified the roles of the remaining four.
"They all have one or two redeeming qualities, and Don's [Donovan McNabb] using those," Reid said, as his team began preparing for another crucial test in its late playoff drive, Sunday at the Washington Redskins. "Marty's doing a great job of [tailoring the play calls to their skills] and the guys are catching the football. If you remember earlier in the year, we had so many drops that I think at one point we were leading the league . . . I think the guys are doing a better job of focusing in and catching the ball."
Jackson came in, a scrawny second-rounder from Cal, with a reputation for ego and outspokenness. That might be the only area where he has been a disappointment. Last week, after he was shut out for the first time all season in that windblown victory at the Giants, Jackson was asked how he felt about not getting the ball. In the same careful monotone he has used all season, he said it didn't matter as long as the team won. Then he caught five passes for 77 yards against the Browns, several of them in traffic. With 58 catches for 852 yards, he might not match Keith Jackson's 1988 Eagles rookie record for catches (81) but he probably will top Jackson's yardage record (869). DeSean also is the Birds' punt returner, with an 8.7-yard average on 47 returns.
"We work hard, man, and play harder," Jackson said yesterday. "It just shows the work we put in."
Jackson, who might have benefited early from injuries to Curtis and Brown, was asked about the possibility of a 1,000-yard season.
"It would definitely be nice to have, and that's definitely not the focus," he said. "We've got games to win. We're trying to get to the playoffs."
McNabb has thrown for 3,511 yards this season, the second-highest total of his career. He should easily pass his career best of 3,875, set in the MYOTO. That would be hard to do with terrible receivers, especially since Westbrook's 46 catches for 319 yards project to his lowest receiving totals since 2003.
"I think our guys have really stepped up and challenged themselves to make plays for us," McNabb said yesterday. "Early on, with our top two receivers being injured, I thought DeSean stepped into the role and has been playing well, consistently, all throughout the year. Hank Baskett stepped in and really made some big plays. Jason Avant, as you see, has continued to flourish in this offense. Greg Lewis, when called upon, he always seems to make plays . . . This year has been an excellent year, as far as our passing game is concerned."
Asked how this group compares with the weapons he had in 2004, McNabb noted that Owens (77 catches for 1,200 yards) and company were pretty formidable, that Owens missed the last two games of that season with a broken ankle, and that Reid pretty much rested the starters the final 2 weeks, anyway - so stat comparisons are misleading.
"It's kind of hard to compare the two, but I think these guys have really been doing a great job for us," McNabb concluded.
Westbrook was asked yesterday whether he thought, back in the preseason, that Jackson would be the Birds' leading receiver. Bear in mind that Westbrook, a fairly talented rookie himself, touched the ball all of 55 times in 2002, 46 carries and nine receptions. He did not return punts or kicks as a third-rounder from Villanova; the Birds still had Brian Mitchell.
"No, I wouldn't have thought that," Westbrook said. "I knew he was going to contribute. I knew he was going to be a big part of our offense, as well as special teams. Going into the season, I didn't think he would be the leading receiver, but the way things have turned out, he's been very explosive down the field, making plays."
Meanwhile, Avant's five-catch, 101-yard night against Cleveland was the first 100-yard receiving game of his career, which includes 20 third-down conversions in 24 third-down catches, 13 of 15 this season.
"First and second down, third down, it's all the same to me," Avant said. "I just go out and play hard. I don't want to look bad on tape, and I want to go out and help my teammates win. I want to play my heart out for 'Five' [McNabb], but mostly, I want to play my heart out for Jesus Christ."
Avant was asked what makes a good slot receiver.
"Not being afraid of getting hit. That's it," he said.
Westbrook certainly doesn't seem to feel he alone is carrying the entire weight of the offense.
"When we play some of our best football is when different guys step up and make plays," Westbrook said. "I've always felt that those guys, collectively, are a pretty good group of wide receivers. Across the board, they're guys who can get it done. They have proven that throughout the season . . . We expect big things from those guys, and they have actually produced this year." *