Andy Reid said he knows what can happen to star NFL running backs when they reach age 30 and their catalog of injuries starts to match the length of an 8-year-old's wish list at Christmas.

The decline can be swift and cruel, but Reid said he did not believe that would occur with Brian Westbrook.

"Brian was on a mission this year to come back, and he still is," Reid said. "When I mention that he was in phenomenal shape, I mean he really was in incredible shape, and that will help him get through this. You have to understand how tough Brian is and how much he loves football."

Westbrook could be sidelined through the preseason after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his right ankle Friday, so it's natural to wonder if his best days are behind him.

Several great players have suffered majestic slides once they turned 30. One of the best and perhaps most pertinent examples is former St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk.

Faulk and Westbrook could beat opponents running and catching the football. Faulk's 3,158 touches by age 30 are considerably more than Westbrook's 1,809, but the two players have one big thing in common.

Like Westbrook, Faulk suffered a severe ankle injury the season before he turned 30. Also like Westbrook, he fought through the pain and continued to play. But when he turned 30 the following season, Faulk failed to rush for 1,000 yards for just the second time in his career. The Rams star never reached that mark again during his final four seasons before retiring in 2006.

"As for 30, it's a benchmark for when running backs start to feel not so good," Faulk said in January before the Super Bowl. "You can't show me a 30-year-old man who was the same as he was at 20."

Faulk, who also starred with the Indianapolis Colts, said that an ankle injury was among the worst for a running back.

"The only thing worse than a high ankle sprain is a bad toe for a running back," Faulk said. "It demobilizes you. Your lateral movement is off. A knee injury is something you can warm up and play with. It's a joint. The high ankle sprain, it's in such a spot that you feel immobile."

Mark Myerson, the foot specialist who operated on Westbrook last week in Baltimore, said afterward that Westbrook's problem was related to the high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 3 last season against Pittsburgh.

Reid said he thinks patience is the most important thing in dealing with Westbrook's rehabilitation.

"It's important that we don't rush him back in there," Reid said. "We have to do what [trainer] Rick [Burkholder] and the doctors feel is best until he's ready to go. Brian is the type of guy, he doesn't want to miss anything. I really don't think it was that big of a deal what he had done. I think it was important he had it done, but it's not like a Lisfranc sprain or a torn anterior cruciate ligament or something of that sort."

Despite the ominous evidence about 30-year-old running backs with long injury histories, Reid said he was convinced Westbrook can still be a star in 2009. The chip on Westbrook's shoulder has as much to do with Reid's opinion as the ones that were removed from the running back's ankle last week.

"That's what makes him good," Reid said. "Most of the good ones are like that."

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