They have pushed him to the limit, working every day on the practice fields at Lehigh University, spending hours with him in the weight room and in the athletic training areas. When head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder announced back in the spring that he would work step by step with running back Brian Westbrook during his recovery from ankle surgery, he wasn't kidding.
Burkholder went stride for stride with Westbrook as they played soccer, ran sprints, worked on explosive movements and then watched while Westbrook performed the football drills under the watchful eye of head coach Andy Reid.
By the time the Eagles left Lehigh, they did just about everything they could do with Westbrook. On Saturday, the Eagles and Westbrook took the next step, an enormously significant development as you look at the big picture here. Westbrook looks great. Simply great. He is cutting and planting and showing the acceleration that makes him special. The Eagles have been patient bringing Westbrook along, aware that he has had two surgeries in the off-season and that running backs are a breed of football player that can fall off the cliff -- in a sports sense, of course -- very quickly.
That cautious, yet aggressive, approach will continue. The Eagles aren't rushing Westbrook back to get him ready for Thursday's game against Indianapolis. And the game the next week against Jacksonville doesn't much matter, either. The target date to have Westbrook 100 percent is September 13, and don't forget it.
It wouldn't hurt Westbrook to get a taste of the preseason. That part of the plan hasn't been revealed. Experiencing the tempo, if only briefly, is important for every player, and there are documented cases from last year showing that players who missed all of the preseason didn't fare as well as they wanted in the regular season.
This has been a quiet sort of recovery for Westbrook, in part because the focus on this team has been in so many other places, and in part because rookie running back LeSean McCoy has been so outstanding. Remember the mini-panic in the spring when Westbrook's second surgery of the off-season -- the first was to his knee -- was announced? Some out there suggested that Westbrook would never be the same, game-changing running back in the NFL.
Whether he gets back to that level remains to be seen. The great news is that Westbrook's return to the practice field -- swallowed up by the Michael Vick coverage -- went without a hitch and that every day that goes by with Westbrook feeling fine is another opportunity for the Eagles to advance his recovery and get his closer to game shape for Carolina.
And while the Vick story and the injuries this team has had and the state of the offensive line and all the other topics we're talking about are worth our time, nothing is more important than Westbrook's health. He remains a gigantic key to this offense, the key beyond quarterback Donovan McNabb, and no matter how impressive McCoy has been, there is nobody close to Westbrook at his best in this backfield at the moment. McCoy may reach that level some day, and there is no denying that he has been outstanding so far, but Westbrook changes defenses with his versatility, toughness and football intelligence.
There are no longer questions about when Westbrook is going to get back on the field. He is good to go. Many hurdles remain -- he needs to accept contact, he needs to build up his game endurance, and he has to experience the tempo again -- but Westbrook is on the come.
Months ago this would have been the top story on this particular Eagles day. Clearly, these are not your run-of-the-mill times for the team. The huge contingent of assembled media at Saturday's practice spent only a few moments watching No. 36 and paying his actions much attention. If you know this team, though, you know how big it was for Westbrook to take this next, important step.
**NEWS, NOTES AND THIS AND THAT
- Other good news on Saturday: Defensive end Victor Abiamiri, defensive tackle Trevor Laws and tight end Matt Schobel returned to practice. Both defensive end Trent Cole (shoulder) and tight end Brent Celek (shoulder) are day to day, and that is a sigh of relief.
- Why is Adam DiMichele still on the roster? Because the Eagles aren't certain that Kevin Kolb (knee) will be ready by Thursday, so they need DiMichele to stay as an emergency quarterback for the Colts game. Vick is serving the second game of his NFL-imposed suspension and is not eligible to play on Thursday.
- How did Vick look? Very good, a nice spiral and his body appeared to be in excellent shape. The best part of having Vick an Eagle is that so many players are excited to be his teammate. There is definitely a very positive buzz.
- Lorenzo Booker continues to run with the second team at halfback and Eldra Buckley the third team. Westbrook did not participate in 11-on-11 drills as McCoy runs with the starters.
- Tight end Rob Myers sure runs well. I'm not sure if he is a practice squad candidate or a player who has a chance to stick on the 53-man roster, but he went down the seam a couple of times to snag passes from Donovan McNabb and Myers moved very, very well.
- I still say there was a larger media contingent at the NovaCare Complex when Terrell Owens became an Eagle and then when he practiced for the first time than this Vick weekend. But, hey, 2004 was a different time in the world of the media ...
- I enjoyed hearing Shawn Andrews express his unhappiness with those in the media whom he feels is portraying Andrews as a player inventing his symptoms or is questioning Andrews' love of the game of football. Andrews is just as frustrated as anybody that he isn't ready to play yet, and I'm taking the optimistic hope that maybe he will soon be ready to practice again.