I've been reflecting on some of the areas where the Eagles needed to improve in the off-season. While the team did almost reach the Super Bowl they were not exactly a juggernaut in the regular season. Now that changes have been made in free agency and the draft, today let's take a look and see just how much the Eagles have improved in the ground game …
The Eagles finished 22nd in the league in rushing offense in 2008. And that total included 243 rushing yards from Donovan McNabb and DeSean Jackson. Brian Westbrook finished the year with just four games in which he rushed for 65 or more yards. That includes playoff games. Ouch. Westbrook had 12 such games in 2007. He had 14 of those games (including the playoffs) back in 2006.
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Westbrook is the key to the running game. The dynamic player from 2006 and 2007 was missing last year. Knee, ankle and rib injuries really took their toll on him. This off-season Westbrook has gone under the knife to have his knee and ankle repaired. He indicated that his knee feels much better after getting it cleaned out. Westbrook just recently had his ankle cleaned up and is now rehabbing. Some fans are really worried about him having the surgeries.
I understand the concern, but people are missing part of the point of Westbrook having the procedures done. The goal was to clean up scar tissue and bone fragments that had become nagging issues. These problems created a lot of pain and hampered Westbrook's performance. If these issues don't flare up during the 2009 season, you are more likely to see Westbrook look like the dynamic playmaker from the past few years.
Westbrook and the team took a proactive approach. They didn't wait around on the problems. The knee got worked on just after the season. Once that situation was all squared away and the ankle pain continued to linger, a decision was made to go ahead and get that fixed as well. Westbrook could potentially lose training camp and preseason work, but that is a small price to pay for him getting rid of significant discomfort.
I fully expect to see Westbrook back to his old self this year. I won't mention a specific goal in terms of yards. I just want to see the guy who was a big-play threat every time he touched the ball. In 2008, Westbrook only had seven plays that went for 20-or-more yards. That is the lowest total since his rookie year when he was barely used. He has averaged 13 plays of 20-or-more yards per season for his career minus his rookie year. Westbrook didn't get old overnight. The injuries took away the moves, quickness and burst that had previously allowed him to turn the short play into a longer gain.
The running game was addressed in other ways. The Eagles used a second-round pick on LeSean McCoy. That's the earliest pick Andy Reid has ever used on a running back. Actions speak louder than words. That action shows that Reid understands the team needed another back with starting-caliber talent. Now Reid just has to show us that he'll use him during the season.
The Eagles signed free agent fullback Leonard Weaver. He will help the running game in a couple of ways. He gives us the best answer we've had at fullback since Jon Ritchie was healthy early on in 2004. Weaver should also get some carries as a running back. He has 80 career carries and averages 4.5 yards per run. This isn't a guy who takes a handoff up the middle and just gets a yard or two. Weaver is a skilled addition to the backfield.
Only time will tell if the Eagles have done enough to fix the running game. I like the moves and I like the thinking behind the moves. There is another factor that will play a huge part in the running game. That is the offensive line. I'm going to analyze that in Friday morning's column.
Part 2 was originally going to be posted Friday morning, but due to the Donovan McNabb contract restructuring, it will be held for Saturday.