There is nothing but praise for Brian Westbrook here. His contribution to the Eagles -- which goes far beyond the yards he gained and the touchdowns he scored -- is measured in large gulps of success and of greatness. There have been few like him in Eagles green, and there will be few like him in the decades to come. The decision to release Westbrook -- it will officially happen, likely, when the new league year begins on March 5 -- was one that hurts in so many ways, and yet is one that is understandable in the hard, cruel world of the NFL.
Westbrook, the franchise's all-time leader in yards from scrimmage, just wasn't himself these last couple of years, especially all the way through the 2009 campaign. His entire off-season prior to '09 was spent recovering from surgeries to his knee and his ankle, and after a promising start to the season he suffered a sprained ankle and everything just become more difficult from there. There were the two concussions, the questions about his long-term health, the decreased playing time and, finally, only a cameo role in the playoff loss to the Cowboys.
You saw it coming, didn't you? All of those seasons of taking a pounding took their toll on Westbrook. At the height of his game, Westbrook was always so good at dodging and darting away from would-be tacklers, at diving into the ground to avoid an on-rushing safety. Westbrook was a rare player, an incredible talent and his intelligence for the game and his natural instincts come along only so often.
Used gingerly to preserve those marvelous talents, Westbrook worked his way to stardom slowly. He played little as a rookie in 2002, and then exploded onto the scene in 2003 when he returned two punts for touchdowns -- one against the Giants that won the game and helped turn around a season, perhaps the most spectacular play in his great Eagles career -- and showed that he was as electric and as versatile and as hard to contain for a defense as just about any player in the league.
Why did it happen this way? I think you're smart enough to figure that out. Westbrook's performance dropped significantly last season due to all of those health issues and in this league, running backs are known to decline rapidly. The Eagles have another running back they love in the person of second-year man LeSean McCoy and, well, it became increasingly clear to any and all who watched McCoy what kind of special talents he has.
Westbrook, really, spent much of his time last season mentoring McCoy. The two were inseparable, and have been that way -- via the telephone, for the most part -- in the time that has passed since 2009 ended.
"I can't tell you," McCoy said last week, "how much Brian has helped me, how much he means to me. I appreciate everything he has done, all the time he has taken to help me early in my career."
Westbrook's numbers speak for themselves: third in the NFL with more than 8,500 yards from scrimmage since 2004, second in team history with 5,995 yards, third in total receptions with 426 and an amazing 9,785 total yards from scrimmage, a franchise high.
He was always the quiet one, the player who in this self-congratulating day and age handed the ball to the referee after scoring rather than dancing for the cameras. Westbrook played like he *expected *end up scoring, so to him it was a natural conclusion to the play.
Taken in the third round of the 2002 draft after an incredible career at Villanova, Westbrook immediately took to his role in the Eagles' version of the West Coast offense. He was dangerous as a running back as he picked and poked and prodded his through holes and then exploded on the helpless second level of the defense, but he was absolutely lethal as a receiver when the Eagles moved him around the formation. And that was the key, really, the way they were able to displace him in the formation and create matchups against defensive players who could not keep up with his quick cuts and precise routes.
What was your favorite Westbrook moment during his eight seasons here? That punt return for a touchdown against the Giants in 2003 late in the fourth quarter that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? The amazing 52-yard catch and run for a touchdown to give the Eagles a late lead when he juked out a half-dozen Tampa Bay defenders in a 2006 game that the Bucs eventually won on a Matt Bryant field goal?
Was it the 40-yard touchdown catch and run to knock off the Giants during the Eagles' late-season surge in 2008? Maybe it was the screen pass he caught and turned into a dazzling touchdown against Minnesota in the playoffs that season.
There were too many highlights to fit into a single flood of memories. He was, simply, the key that drove the Eagles' offensive engine. And now the Eagles are preparing to move into another direction, into another era. This McCoy's running game now, with some help of course. The Eagles will add to the position and they will make sure they are well equipped there, but make no mistake about it: LeSean McCoy is the feature back now and into the (hopefully) distant future.
If he anywhere close to being the player and the person Westbrook has been, the Eagles will be in great shape. Westbrook leaves behind eight years of great memories, of how-did-he-do-that? moments. In this game, in this world, you cherish those times, because they sure don't last long enough.