FOR A BRIEF moment yesterday, it looked as if the Eagles might be opening the 2009 season with Lorenzo Booker as their starting running back.
Brian Westbrook? He was in an operating room in Baltimore getting two large bone fragments taken out of his gimpy right ankle.
Hot-shot rookie LeSean McCoy? He was walking off the field in pain after injuring his left thumb in an organized team activity in the team's indoor practice facility.
But McCoy's injury turned out to be minor (a sprain) and Westbrook is expected to be back in plenty of time for the Eagles' Sept. 13 season-opener against the Carolina Panthers.
"I think coach [Andy] Reid and I and everybody here, we feel pretty comfortable that Brian will be back by the beginning of the season," Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder said. "Whether he will be back by the beginning of training camp or not, it's too early to tell."
Dr. Mark Myerson, who performed the 90-minute procedure on Westbrook, said in a statement that it's "unlikely" the soon-to-be 30-year-old running back would be able to play in the preseason, but expects him to be ready for the regular season.
It's hardly a big deal if he sits out the preseason. Even when Westbrook is healthy, Reid doesn't give him much August work. He's had a total of 30 rushing attempts in the last three preseasons.
Myerson removed the bone fragments from a hard-to-get-to area in the back of the ankle. One of the fragments was impinging a tendon that moves the big toe. The tendon was severely inflamed and surrounded by scar tissue. Myerson removed the scar tissue.
Myerson said Westbrook's right foot will be immobilized in a boot for about 4 weeks, then he will begin a "gradual course of rehabilitation."
There have been questions as to why Westbrook and the Eagles waited so long to repair the ankle, which he initially injured last season in Week 3 against Pittsburgh.
According to Burkholder, Westbrook didn't really start experiencing problems with the ankle until late last month when he stepped up his offseason conditioning program. He said he started experiencing pain when he got up on his toes.
"Some of the stuff he was doing in rehab to strengthen his lower extremity, he had to get on his toes for, and he realized that when he was doing calf-raises and toe-raises and stuff like that, he was starting to get pain," the trainer said. "He tried to fight through it. We treated him a little bit. But it got to a point where it was really a struggle, and we realized that if we kept going at this rate, we were going to struggle in September."
Westbrook, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage 2 years ago, battled through ankle and knee injuries last season. He seldom practiced but scored a career-high 14 touchdowns, but had just two in the Eagles' last six games, including the playoffs. He averaged a career-low 7.4 yards per catch and his 4.0 rushing average was the second lowest of his career.
He had surgery to clean out the knee shortly after the season.
Only time will tell how much magic is left in Westbrook's legs. He will turn 30 on Sept. 2 and has nearly 2,000 career touches.
The Eagles drafted McCoy with the idea of lightening Westbrook's load and extending his career. He averaged 24.5 touches a game in '07, and even with the injuries last year, still averaged 20.5 touches per game.
"We drafted McCoy, obviously, for a reason," Reid said. "And that's to work him in and play. What I've seen from him in these [noncontact] camps, I like.
"We'll see how the other guys [McCoy, Booker, Kyle Eckel and fullback Leonard Weaver] progress. If the other guys are capable of getting in there and doing their thing, then that's what we'll do. We'll rotate them in there [with Westbrook]."
Booker got just 26 touches last season after the Eagles traded a fourth-round pick to Miami for him. Reid said the main reason for that was he struggled with pass protection.
"He's worked real hard on that," the Eagles coach said. "We're not doing a lot of that right now because we're not doing any live stuff. But his recognition is good. For what we are doing, he looks OK. I know what he can do carrying the football and catching it. His primary thing was just working on his pass protection in there."
What Booker and McCoy give Reid are two versatile running backs who can be used the same way as Westbrook.
"It's important that guys can come in and do what's in the game plan," he said. "When you set up a game plan, you set things up where you flex Brian out of the backfield and create mismatches. It's important that you have other players that can do that. If you don't, it's hard to get a game plan that can function [when Westbrook isn't in there]. I think we have those guys. I think we have people that can do that now."
In Weaver, he also has a guy who can be used as a fullback in two-back sets or a running back in one-back sets.
"That's one of the things I bring to the table," Weaver said. "I have the versatility to go from fullback to running back or even play out of the one-back. Whatever Andy and [offensive coordinator] Marty [Mornhinweg] want to do in terms of using me and my versatility, I'm open to it. I'm ready to step in there whenever they call my number."
Burkholder is confident that Westbrook's knee and ankle will allow him to handle as heavy a workload as Reid wants to give him this season.
"If you're asking me if I'm worried about this injury and his two injuries, no I'm not at all," he said. "I'm not worried in the least about these injuries, and that's the way I've played it with coach and with management and with the rest of the coaches. I am not concerned about this injury."
Weaver is looking forward to blocking for Westbrook when he gets back.
"I came in excited to work with him," he said. "It looked like we might not get the opportunity right away. But we're definitely going to get the chance during the season. And I'd much rather have him during the season than right now anyway."
Rick Burkholder said X-rays of LeSean McCoy's injured thumb were negative and that he has "a chance" to practice next week when the Eagles conclude OTAs . . . Ex-Eagles offensive tackle Tra Thomas visited the locker room yesterday after the morning OTA. Thomas signed with the Jaguars in March. *