This is not going to be a summer of lolling around the pool for running back Brian Westbrook. He has a long road in front of him to get back into tip-top shape, and he and Eagles head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder are going to spend day after day and hour after hour rehabbing a right ankle that Friday underwent successful surgery to repair two bone fragments.
We don't know when Westbrook will return to the football field, but Burkholder expressed his optimism on Friday that No. 36 will be ready to go when the Eagles open the season in Carolina. And Burkholder is not one of those guys to paint an inacurate picture. He is a realist. He knows that when you place a timetable on a return -- which he didn't do specifically, but did by saying Westbrook should be OK for September -- you create an expectation for everyone involved.
Generally, Burkholder takes the most cautious approach when talking with the media. Better to be on the safe side of things. In this case, though, of everything Burkholder said, this is what sticks with me when he was asked about Westbrook's tough off-season that includes two surgeries -- one on his knee, one on his ankle -- and his long-range prognosis.
"If you're asking me if I'm worried about this injury and his two injuries, no I'm not at all," said Burkholder. "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. I think it's something that we had an option to do or not do and we decided to do it and we are going forward and he's going to be in really good shape this coming season."
Now, it's not going to be easy. And people are going to write Westbrook off -- they have, already -- as a carry-the-offense kind of running back for now, and forever. There is a lot of professional pride here for Westbrook, for Burkholder and for the Eagles, who have to be realistic about what they have at the running back position with or, gasp, without Westbrook.
For now, head coach Andy Reid says, the Eagles are going to stay the course. There is a lengthy list of "big-name" running backs on the streets, and those players are likely to remain where they are when teams open training camps at the end of July. Those players -- Edgerrin James, Warrick Dunn, Ahman Green, Duece McAllister, Michael Pittman -- will stay in great shape and they will be on every team's emergency list late in the summer.
But the Eagles don't think they are at the "emergency" stage. Not even close. With Westbrook out through next week's Organized Team Activities and well into training camp, it seems, the Eagles are going to know exactly where rookie LeSean McCoy is and how he can fit in, and they are going to give Lorenzo Booker the opportunity of a football lifetime. He is going to get a chance to show he can be productive in this offense, that he can pick up blitzes and gain tough yardage and stay durable even with a heavy pounding of carries inside.
Westbrook is the big-picture question here, of course. Not just whether he will be ready to go for that first game, but whether he can ever again be Brian Westbrook, Pro Bowl running back. The truth is that nobody has an answer to that question, because only time will tell there. But Burkholder and Westbrook are going to be training side by side once Westbrook is able to do so -- two weeks and counting before he can bear weight -- and the goal is not only to get back on the field, but to get back on the field and to be a great football player again.
"I guess anybody, the longer they get in their career, has problems, but some guys come back stronger," said Burkholder. "He was nicked up this year and maybe he'll come back and have a better year than last year because he's gotten this stuff out of the way in the off-season. Who knows? I think he's tough as nails, though. He's one of the toughest guys I've ever worked with, I know that. And he's not going to back down from anything because he's nicked up, and I think he's going to come into the season very clean.""
Burkholder knows Westbrook's history on and off the field better than anybody. He understands the surgery Westbrook had in Baltimore with Dr. Mark Myerson performing on Friday. He knows the road back is going to be a tough one, and he knows that no player works harder than does Westbrook Burkholder understands which buttons to push with Westbrook and he knows the special skill set that Westbrook has that has led him to so much success in his career here.
Everyone has a lot riding here. The Eagles knew they couldn't put every egg in Westbrook's basket, so they drafted McCoy and made sure not to give up on Booker after his disappointing first season here and, well, here we are. Everyone held his breath at practice when McCoy writhed in agony after catching a pass in one-on-one drills, using his left hand to balance himself on the inside turf at the NovaCare Complex. Turns out that McCoy suffered only a sprained left thumb, but it was scary for a moment.
Can you imagine the June panic if both Westbrook and McCoy were out for an extended period of time? Geez ...
Can Brian Westbrook ever again be an elite running back in this league? I don't know. The Eagles don't know. Westbrook doesn't know. The doubters out there already have an answer, but nobody here is going to accept that. Westbrook is going to take advantage of a great athletic training staff here. He knows there has been no structural damage in either his knee or in his ankle during the off-season surgeries. Westbrook was hobbled all of last year, but he managed 14 touchdowns and an electrifying 15th in the playoff victory at Minnesota.
The Eagles are going to push him, and he is going to push himself. At the same time, the coaches will continue to evaluate McCoy and Booker on a daily basis, and Tom Heckert and his pro personnel department will monitor the help available on the streets.
Westbrook, though, will be the main story until he gets back on the field. And he will be in the front of Burkholder's mind the entire time.
"Here's a guy that struggles week in and week out to be pain free and keeps his conditioning for season after season, and off-season after off-season, so he's been down this road before," said Burkholder. "He and I have worked closely together. We're actually looking forward to working with each other while everyone else is away to get him in great shape. I don't foresee it as a problem.
"I think that he's going to come back in better shape. A little bit of ego involved, I think, because he gets to work with me straight through the summer which we haven't had a chance (to do) before. We've only worked through June and then he's been off for the summer so I'm looking forward to it. I think he's going to come to training camp in the best shape of his life."
And after that, hey, only time will tell how much Westbrook has left in his superstar NFL life.