Philly tailback has to prove he's durable

Updated: August 22, 2004, 12:14 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Never mind that after only two NFL seasons Brian Westbrook's medical dossier includes notations on a couple of sprained ankles, wrist surgery and an operation only seven months ago to stitch together a torn triceps tendon in his left arm.

Brian Westbrook
Westbrook

Even as his Philadelphia Eagles bosses spent the weekend plotting their next move to bolster a suddenly perilous tailback situation, following the season-ending knee injury suffered by Correll Buckhalter on Friday night, Westbrook was adamant that no one reach for the panic button.

And that's because, Westbrook suggested, the little guy is prepared to carry a big load.

"I'm definitely ready," said Westbrook, who has just 11 career starts, but now finds himself unchallenged as the No. 1 tailback on the Eagles' depth chart. "It's tough to get such an opportunity because of injury, at someone else's [misfortune], but that is a part of the game. The thing is, I got myself ready in the offseason for a bigger role, and so it's not like I haven't prepared to be the main guy."

But despite starting half of the games in 2003, before the biceps injury in the season finale sidelined him for the playoffs and dramatically altered the dynamic of the Philadelphia running attack, Westbrook had been just one in a rotation of three men. His co-stars included Buckhalter and veteran Duce Staley.

Buckhalter will now be forced to rehabilitate from a severe knee injury for the second time in his four-year career. Staley, who signed with Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent in the spring, is poised to win the Steelers' starting job over Jerome Bettis. And the compact Westbrook, not nearly as small as perceived but hardly a guy with prototype size, is out on the tightrope without a net.

Credit the confident Westbrook, however, for not exactly tiptoeing around the direct and difficult questions about his durability.

"All you have to do is look at my college career, where I had all those touches and had no problem at all with the workload," said the former Villanova star, who left school as one of the most prolific players in Division I-AA history, playing in 46 games and setting an NCAA record for all-purpose yards. "I never wore down. And it's not like I have been [brittle] in the NFL. The kinds of injuries I've had, they're just part of the game."

His confidence aside, there are still skeptics who aren't certain Westbrook is strong enough to be a full-time back, one who won't erode physically when the calendar turns to November. There is some merit to those concerns until Westbrook proves otherwise.

In his 30 appearances over two seasons, Westbrook has averaged 8.4 total touches and handled the ball from scrimmage an average of 7.0 times. For his 11 starts, his average touches overall is 10.6, with 9.2 of those from scrimmage. His career high for rushing attempts is 15 and he has double-digit carries in only four outings.

For now, though, he is the Eagles' best option. The coaching staff will move second-year veteran Reno Mahe, a former undrafted free agent who had no carries and one reception as a rookie in 2003, into the No. 2 spot. Eric McCoo, who led NFL Europe in rushing this spring, will also see more playing time. And fifth-round draft pick Thomas Tapeh, a former Minnesota fullback the Philadelphia scouts feel can be a productive player in one-back sets, will get a long look.

The obvious shortcoming is that the Eagles don't really have a proven power back, and it won't be easy to find one.

Among unemployed running backs are James Stewart, Dorsey Levens and Stacey Mack, but there is a reason those players haven't been signed. A trade might be a possibility but, knowing that the Eagles are a team in need, potential swap partners likely will raise the ante.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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