Westbrook Still Looks To Prove Himself

For Brian Westbrook, this final month of the season is about two things. It's about helping the Eagles earn their sixth playoff berth in the last seven years. And it's about proving to all the skeptics out there that he's big enough, tough enough and durable enough to be a carry-the-load NFL running back.

There's no question Westbrook is talented enough. He's one of the best all-purpose backs in the league. In his first five NFL seasons, he has averaged 4.67 yards per carry, 9.44 yards per reception and 5.95 yards per touch.

But for much of his career, the Eagles have had to monitor his touches for fear of him getting hurt. And that fear has been justified. Since the Eagles took him in the third round of the '02 draft, he's had a list of maladies longer than your arm. A Lis Franc foot sprain. A torn triceps tendon. Cracked ribs. A wrist injury. Ankle sprains. A bruised knee.

But coach Andy Reid can't afford to baby Westbrook any longer. With his starting quarterback, Donovan McNabb, out for the season, he needs all of the production he can get from Westbrook. And if that means pushing his body into uncharted territory, well, so be it.

In the last three seasons, Westbrook had 20 or more touches in just 14 of the Eagles' 48 regular-season games. Had more than 23 just once during that time.

Their questions about his ability to be a heavy-duty back were why the Eagles dragged their feet in giving Westbrook a long-term contract. But last November, they finally bit the bullet and gave him a deal that included a $10 million signing bonus.

Three weeks later, Westbrook suffered a Lisfranc foot sprain and missed the season's final four games. He carried the ball six times in the Eagles' first pre-season game this summer and injured his other foot. He didn't carry the ball again until the regular-season opener.

Three weeks into the season, after getting 26 touches in a Week 2 loss to the New York Giants, Westbrook's knee started swelling up.

But the knee appears fine now and Reid has decided to throw caution to the wind and give Westbrook the ball as often as possible. In the Eagles' last four games, including Sunday's 27-24 come-from-behind win over Carolina, Westbrook has 108 touches.

Westbrook went into the Panthers game with a chance to become the first Eagle running back since Steve Van Buren to notch four straight 100-yard games. He came up short, rushing for 68 yards on 16 carries and gaining 56 more yards on six receptions.

With four games left, he has a chance to become the first Eagles player in history to rush for 1,000 yards (he's got 907) and surpass 700 receiving yards (he's got 586). His 246 touches are just six short of his career high.

Westbrook suffered a toe injury in Sunday's win over the Panthers. He left the game for a few plays, but went back in and had two big plays on the Eagles' game-tying and game-winning scoring drives.

"It's OK," said Westbrook, who will be needed Sunday against the Washington Redskins as the 6-6 Eagles try to stay in the hunt for an NFC wild card berth. "It was good enough to finish the game. It should be OK by Sunday."

The bottom line is that if Westbrook goes down, the Eagles' playoff hopes will go down with them. Reid elected not to bring in another proven running back to rotate with Westbrook, instead going with Correll Buckhalter, who has missed three of the last four years with knee injuries. Buckhalter has been serviceable as a six-touch-a-game role player. But if he had to carry the load, the Eagles would be in trouble.

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