Eagles release running back Brian Westbrook

The Eagles are in the market for a new running back after making the tough decision to release Brian Westbrook

On Monday, the San Diego Chargers released former Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson and for the second day in a row another high profile runner is looking for work.   The end of era happened in Philly as the Philadelphia Eagles decided to cut running back Brian Westbrook.  Though the mercurial running back still had years remaining on the contract that he signed before the 2008 NFL Season, it was apparent that the Birds felt injuries (concussion, ankle, and knee problems all during the 2009 season) and age had caught up with their offense’s center piece since 2004.

Though Westbrook’s career numbers of 5995 rushing yards (71st All-time in the NFL), 3790 receiving yards on 426 receptions and 68 combined touchdowns probably will not get him a “sniff” from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  His legacy within the Eagles’ lockerroom and with fans will be everlasting.  Since arriving with the Eagles as a 3rd round draft pick in 2002, B-West showed that he was more than his listed size of 5’8, 200 pounds.  The former Villanova dual-threat running back, who many projected as “just” a kick returner and 3rd down back when he entered the NFL, showed that his quickness and “Want To” that made him the franchise’s 2nd all-time rusher behind Wilbert Montgomery.

Two-time Pro Bowl player and 1-time All Pro did indeed prove that his skills from 1-AA football did equate to the NFL as he was the main cog in Andy Reid’s West Coast offense.  Westbrook was the lynchpin of Eagles’ squads that made NFC Championship Games (five altogether under Reid, four with B-West) and one Super Bowl in 2004.  During his time in Philly, others around the NFL talked about backs like Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, Marshall Faulk, and Willie Parker but to Eagles’ fans Westbrook was had to be placed in any conversation with the NFL’s elite.  You name it; B-West did for the Eagles.  Blocking, catching, running inside and outside, picking up the blitz, returning punts when needed, running out of the Wildcat formation and even throwing a pass or two. 

“You know what, he had no weaknesses,” Reid said at yesterday’s press conference announcing Westbrook’s release.  “There wasn’t any one thing that you could pick out that he was not good at. He was brilliant. There are just certain guys that are just football smart and he was one of those guys. You never had to tell him anything more than one time and it was done, and you had confidence that it was going to be done.”

Despite never playing in all 16 games during his 8-year career –- due to a myriad of injuries —  which some used to make a case for saying he was injury-prone… make no bones about it Westbrook was as “tough” as a $4.00 steak at the Vegas buffet.  I often marveled when standing next to B-West how his play belied his size.  B-West despite having to play probably the most demanding position in the NFL, was the Eagles’ best blitz protector, cat-quick in space and also went over the middle on passes making him one of the NFL’s best slot receivers.  .  To underscore his toughness, despite being Reid’s main engine, which entailed 1796 touches in his career, Westbrook only lost 9 fumbles in his career.

Westbrook’s incredible value to the team was probably shown most in his incredible ‘07 season where he set an Eagles’ record for combine receiving and rushing yards with 2104 yards including over 1,200 yards rushing, and 90 catches. Also in that magical season, Westbrook showed his unselfishness against the hated Dallas Cowboys as he laid down right before crossing the goal line thus forgoing a touchdown in order to cement a road win for the Birds. For his efforts Westbrook finally was paid amongst the league’s best backs signing a deal with the terms three years, $21 Million with $13 Million guaranteed in ‘08 and ’09.  Westbrook maybe done as an Eagle, but his fans will always have his highlight reel moments including his miraculous game-winning 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Giants in 2003. And his incredible 71-yard darting catch and run touchdown to break open the Eagles 2008 wildcard playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome. 

The 2009 NFL Season was another tough one on Westbrook as he missed 8 games and only ran for only 274 yards and 1 TD.  After a solid performance against the Panthers in Week 1 – produced numbers of 13 rushes for 64 yards and 3 receptions for 8 yards, 1 TD — Westbrook hurt his ankle against the Saints in Week 2, and then he suffered a debilitating concussion against the Washington Redskins in Week 7.  So at age 30, the Birds made the tough decision to let him go.  The move was not a shocker given Westbrook’s 7 Million Dollar price tag for the 2010 season and the emergence of 2009 rookie LeSean McCoy.  Though the Eagles took a cap hit of $1.5 million by not waiting for the start of free agency on March 5th (start of the 2010 NFL Calendar and Free Agency), the move will allow both sides to move-on.

With the growing NFL trend of having at least two quality running backs splitting carries to keep defensive coordinators guessing and backs fresher.  Westbrook will be battling it out with other veteran running backs Tomlinson, Parker, Edgerrin James and others to find a home in a league that likes their backs age 27 and under.  Expect all of these veteran running backs to play the waiting game for injuries in training camp or during the season – just ask career 10,000-yard running back Shaun Alexander, who briefly was with the Redskins in 2008 and is still looking for a job. 

Some teams rumored to be looking for a running back are the Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots.  Unfortunately the NFL is a cruel, “What have you done lately” league.  However Westbrook and the other veterans can hope to duplicate the end of career success of veteran running backs Joe Washington, Otis Anderson, and John Riggins – all backs who found homes late in their careers and thrived.

As for the Eagles, I don’t expect them to go after free agents Chester Taylor, Ronnie Brown, L.T. or Parker. Expect them to draft a running back in the 2nd or 3rd round, who can catch the ball out to the backfield. McCoy badly needs a partner other than Eldra Buckley and fullback Leonard Weaver, but  Birds’ fans better not be hoping for a between the tackles runner as that is not their scheme.  Some backs the Eagles may have interest in this April’s NFL Draft are Dexter McCluster (Ole Miss), Jonathan Dwyer (GA Tech), and Joe McKnight (USC).

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

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