Philadelphia Eagles News

Running Game Is Where High Priority Should Be

You hope that the numbers are a blip in the career of Brian Westbrook. You hope that his multiple injuries suffered in 2008 won't nag him in any way in the future, and that at age 29 melting onto 30 Westbrook still has superstar years in front of him for this Eagles offense.

But as the Eagles go through and review their now-completed 2008 season, they will closely evaluate why Westbrook's numbers crumbled. They will take into account everything -- Westbrook's injuries, the performance of the players around him, play-calling, defensive schemes.

Everything.

One of the critical decisions the Eagles must make in the months ahead is how to improve the running game. At times when the Eagles really needed it throughout the season, whether it was short-yardage situations or times to eat clock or those instances when the coaches wanted to establish the line of scrimmage, the offense too often didn't deliver the production.

Westbrook's numbers themselves in the regular season were down, but injuries were a large reason why. He was limited to just 233 carries, his lowest number since injuries stunted his 2005 season to 12 games and 156 carries. Furthermore for Westbrook, he caught just 54 passes, the fewest for him since the 2003 campaign.

Westbrook averaged 4.0 yards per carry this year and he contributed 9 touchdowns on the ground and another 5 touchdowns receiving, and there were times when he was absolutely electrifying. But as the team came down the stretch, Westbrook practiced very little, if at all, during the week. Sometimes, it didn't matter, like when Westbrook rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown and caught 6 passes for 72 yards and a score in the December win over the Giants.

Following that game, though, Westbrook had the following numbers: 16 carries, 53 yards against the Browns; 12 carries, 45 yards against the Redskins and 13 carries for 50 yards in the blowout win over Dallas. Nobody paid it much mind, though, because the Eagles reached the playoffs and Westbrook was banged up and, well, the stars shine in the post-season.

Westbrook did just that for one play against the Vikings, taking a screen pass and zig-zagging 71 yards for the game-clinching touchdown against the Vikings. Even though he had only 20 rushes for 38 yards, Westbrook showed how valuable he was and how great he is with that one, back-breaking play.

But as the playoffs concluded for the Eagles, Westbrook's three-game totals were not close to his normal standards: 50 carries, 119 yards and zero touchdowns to go along with 7 receptions for 119 yards and the score in Minnesota.

Why were the numbers so down? Was Westbrook simply so beaten up that he didn't have his usual burst and change of direction and the ability to make defenders miss? Was it a lack of blocking from the line? Play-calling? Defenses keying on No. 36?

What?

Why?

The Eagles are in the process of evaluating everything; that is what happens this week before Andy Reid gives his coaching staff off prior to the trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. And, moving forward, the Eagles are going to want to improve everything, to take the necessary steps to bring back a Super Bowl-caliber team in 2009.

Brian Westbrook's 2008 campaign, and how he figures into 2009, has to be front and center.

It is my opinion that Westbrook is one of the very best running backs in the game when he is healthy. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see much of a healthy Westbrook this. He may have been at the top of his game in Weeks 1 and 2, and then again until December 7 against the Giants after he had 10 days off following the Arizona game.

There were too many times this season when Westbrook was simply unable to run away from chasing linebackers after making a catch in the passing game, and perhaps the most alarming drop in his numbers were the yards per catch: 7.4 yards on average. That is a total nearly three yards off his career best of 10.1 yards, set in 2005 and is the lowest total of his career.

Battling an assortment of injuries, notably those to the ribs, ankle and knee, Westbrook just wasn't himself for much of the season.

"I think what happened with Brian was he had the high ankle sprain and that's where things went south for him a bit as far as the setback goes," said head coach Andy Reid at his Monday press conference at the NovaCare Complex." And those last a long time, especially at that position. So then I thought toward the end here, and yesterday being one of them, I thought he looked and ran as well as he had run in the last month or so. He just looked like he had some zip yesterday and really was playing well."

Sounds good, except that Westbrook gained only 45 yards on 12 carries and had just 2 receptions for 26 yards. Seventy-one yards of offense is not exactly a typical Westbrook output.

No question there is more than Westbrook's injuries that hampered the Eagles' running game this season. The short-yardage success was sporadic and the red-zone running wasn't nearly as productive as the Eagles need it to be. Dan Klecko was new to the fullback position and the offensive line had its ups and downs creating running lanes each week.

Too, Correll Buckhalter, extremely productive whenever he had the football in his hands, simply did not get enough touches throughout the course of the year, and Lorenzo Booker did not provide nearly the impact the Eagles envisioned when they sent a fourth-round draft pick to Miami on draft weekend to acquire Booker.

So a lot of things have to be worked out with the running game, including the emphasis the Eagles will take calling running plays moving forward (no pun intended). But Westbrook's status, and the Eagles' evaluation of his performance from this year and his ceiling next year, is of top importance. Westbrook turns 30 in early September, an age when some running backs historically fall off the NFL cliff. Westbrook doesn't appear to be going in that direction, not after scoring 15 touchdowns this season (including playoffs), but the Eagles have to make sure.

Should they put all of their eggs in Westbrook's basket and expect him to carry 20-25 times per game and still have the durability to be a go-to threat in the passing game? Should they bring back Buckhalter and give him a larger, more consistent role? Should they count on Booker to make a large contribution in his second season as an Eagle?

Or should the Eagles add a big-time weapon to complement Westbrook in the backfield? Should they go out in free agency and add a player, or use a high draft pick in April? It isn't as easy as it sounds, for the free-agent talent is generally spread thin and rookies are very slow to integrate into this offense as they learn the X's and O's and understand the complex blitz pickups in this league.

The Eagles need to run the ball better, for sure. They need Westbrook to be a star, or they need to make sure they have an adequate answer in case he isn't able to carry the load for another season. As the off-season unfolds and the coaching staff and personnel department maps out the Eagles' off-season play, be certain that Westbrook and the running game are right there at the top of the must-improve list.

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