Expect Westbrook to return punts
It isn't official, but it's certainly likely Eagles running back Brian Westbrook will find himself returning punts in the Super Bowl.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In keeping with the game-planning gag order traditionally imposed on players from every Super Bowl team, Brian Westbrook wasn't about to spill the beans here on Sunday evening, and not even the threat of bamboo shoots under his fingernails would probably have elicited a confession about what figures to transpire next weekend on the Philadelphia Eagles' punt return unit.
But asked in the first media session of Super Bowl week if he might reprise the punt return responsibilities that were a significant part of his NFL résumé before he became the Eagles' starting tailback, Westbrook could barely stifle a mischievous grin.
"I'm lobbying for it, lobbying pretty hard, to tell the truth," said Westbrook, who in just his third season has emerged as the centerpiece of the Philadelphia offense. "But we'll just have to see if [the coaches] listen."
Rest assured, the Philadelphia coaching staff, in particular standout special teams chief John Harbaugh, has already decided to act on Westbrook's entreaties. Barring a change during the week of practices preceding Super Bowl XXXIX, the elusive Westbrook will be utilized as a punt returner next Sunday night, at least part of the time.
Coach Andy Reid claimed that allowing the versatile Westbrook to reprise a role at which he excelled in the past had not yet been discussed by his staff. Harbaugh allowed last week, though, that Westbrook is "in the mix" as the Philadelphia coaches attempt to maximize the abilities of their playmakers.
New England special teams ace Larry Izzo said Sunday evening that the Patriots expect the Eagles to use Westbrook on punt returns.
"He's the kind of guy," Izzo said, "where you're looking for ways to put the ball in his hands. It's the Super Bowl, right? So you fire every gun at your disposal."
In his 2002 rookie season, Westbrook wasn't used at all as a returner, but the explosive scatback returned 20 punts in 2003 for a 15.3-yard average and two touchdowns. This season, he registered only two returns, one for zero yards and the other for 14 yards. He hasn't run back a punt in more than two months but it isn't as if the return skill suddenly eluded him.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted here Sunday the importance of specials teams, how much yardage differential is attached to that element of the game, how one big play in the kicking game can determine field position. And while Westbrook is essential to the Eagles in terms of moving the ball from scrimmage, he might afford them a difference-maker in the kicking game with his ability to make tacklers miss in space.
The Eagles statistically ranked 13th in the league during the regular season, averaging 9.2 yards per return. Rookie cornerback Dexter Wynn averaged 10.8 yards on 18 returns, and that included a 40-yard runback. Reserve tailback Reno Mahe returned 19 punts but had an average of just 5.7 yards. The Eagles also had fair catches on nearly one-third of the punts they fielded in 2004.
In two postseason games, Philadelphia has three punt returns for a total of four yards. It is even possible that cornerback Lito Sheppard, who made the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter but who made big plays on kick returns in the past, will log some time on special teams in the Super Bowl.
Given that Westbrook is a game-breaker, it only makes sense that Philadelphia coaches will provide him every opportunity to make a big play. One reason that Westbrook was removed from punt return duty was that the Eagles did not want to physically erode him. But the former Villanova star, who totaled 250 "touches" from scrimmage in 2004, and who led the NFL in receptions (73) and receiving yards (703) by a running back, has had no problems since returning from a midseason chest injury.
Plus, it's obvious that Westbrook is excited by the possibility of getting the ball in his hands on special teams, where the field is spread and there is plenty of open space.
"If they ask, well, I'm there, man," Westbrook said.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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