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Westbrook's Role Could Make Difference

In the past, when the Dallas Cowboys prepared to play the Eagles, they had a scout team running back wear a red No. 36 and they paid attention to where he was in practice because they knew that in the game, Brian Westbrook would be a factor and would line up in various positions within the offense. This week, with Westbrook coming off a concussion after missing Sunday's win over the Giants, it's fair to wonder exactly how the Eagles are going to use Westbrook against Dallas, and in the weeks to come.

It has been a tough season for Westbrook, one of the all-time great backs here. His off-season was marred by surgeries to his knee and his ankle, and a sprained ankle and the concussion have limited Westbrook to five games and 58 touches.

This isn't typical of the career Westbrook has had for the Eagles. With the addition of rookie running back LeSean McCoy to the team, Westbrook's role has been reduced. That much is clear. Not too long ago, Westbrook was the player around whom the offense was built. His versatility was the X-factor as defenses tried to match up against the Eagles' offense.

Maybe it will be that way again, very soon. Westbrook scored 14 touchdowns in last year's regular season, even though he was banged up for much of the year, but you know how running backs are in this league. They reach that not-so-magical age (30) and all of a sudden there are whispers and then a team uses a high draft pick at the same position and injuries mount and, well, Westbrook's story has played out according to that scenario.

It is possible then, maybe even likely, that Westbrook is going to continue to have a reduced role this season. Maybe he doesn't ever again get 25 carries in a game. Maybe he is used more in spot duty than as a full-time back.

Could be. And that isn't a problem if the Eagles get a healthy Westbrook on the field and use him accordingly. Westbrook has 197 rushing yards and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He has 17 catches as well, and has accounted for 327 yards of offense in the five games (four games, plus a couple of series against Washington, really).

Dallas may not have a scout team running back wearing No. 36, but they know they have to account for Westbrook if he is split out in the formation on Sunday night, working against a slower linebacker in coverage.

The question the Eagles coaches have to answer, though, is very important: How much should they use Westbrook?

He is the starter and Westbrook remains a very good player. He is a sound blocker, a great receiver, an explosive running back. Westbrook showed against Oakland that he still has "it" by gaining 50 yards on 6 rushing attempts and adding 91 yards on 9 receptions. Just as Westbrook appeared to have his legs back and his quickness regained, he suffered the nasty concussion at Washington and missed the rest of that game and Sunday's win over New York.

Westbrook is at full-go in practice now. He says he feels great and he looks great and there is every reason to think that he is going to be an integral pert of the offense against Dallas. But this is a different Eagles offense than the one that relied on Westbrook to carry so much of the load for much of this decade. This offense is built around blinding speed, and young receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin have that. McCoy showed his big-play skills against the Giants with a 66-yard touchdown run. Third-year man Brent Celek is a Pro Bowl talent at tight end. And quarterback Donovan McNabb, when given time by an offensive line that seems to be improving each week, has his pick of targets to play with in the passing game.

Where does that leave Westbrook?

Maybe Westbrook is that the point in his career where he gets 8-12 touches a game and adds the craftiness and the guile to make big plays here and there, like the really good veterans do. Maybe Westbrook still has a lot left in his magic bag, and that he can finally enjoy a period of good health and prosperity on the football field.

We know this, though: The Eagles have much more than Westbrook in the offense. This is certainly no slap at Westbrook, the best running back I've seen with the Eagles, but rather a compliment to the personnel department -- Andy Reid, Tom Heckert, Howie Roseman -- who have impressively built up this roster in the last couple of off-seasons to surround McNabb with an unprecedented amount of depth of talent.

Westbrook will get his touches, and McCoy will get his, and the coaching staff will have the challenge of making sure they play the right personnel packages and recognize who is hot and who is not. Maybe, finally, the Eagles can use two halfbacks on the field at the same time and blend them into the scheme to offer a how-in-the-world-can-a-defense-cover-*that *group of skill players to stretch the field.

There is no room for sentimentality in the NFL. The Eagles know that and exercise that principle as well as any team. Westbrook is in a place right now where he has never been -- coming off multiple injuries, a young turk ready to play, an offense loaded with other options -- and we will all learn together what next steps his career takes.

The good news is that Westbrook is back and that he looks terrific. Still to be determined is what role he has in the offense starting Sunday night against the dreaded Cowboys.

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