Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Nine Plays That Defined Brian Westbrook

In case you've somehow missed it....

With the sad but expected news, I thought I'd look back on the best work that the man did in the laundry. I don't want to get into the merits of the move from the team or player perspective... or how cold the personnel side of things are... or how I'm not treating Dub anywhere near as callously as I did LaDanian Tomlinson... or whether the team is going to get pilloried in the press or shunned by free agents for their willingness to cut ties now, rather than later.

There are plenty of other blogs for that, run by people who aren't unabashed fans of Dub. So go look at them.

The thing about Westbrook as a player is that, due to his relatively small stature and constant battling of injuries, we *always* knew that this was a finite resource, only to be used judiciously. When he got the ball too much -- rare as that was in the Reid Pass And Pass Some More Offense -- we worried. When he got the ball too little, which was also fairly rare, given how much they loved to screen with him, for good reason -- we groused. When the injuries mounted, and then finally the concussions, there was never a backlash against the player for being injury-prone or spent.

He was just Dub, the kid from Villanova who turned out to be the next best thing to Marshall Faulk, the injury prone shifty speed guy who was also somehow a great blocker, a good route runner, and never made meaningful waves with an off-color remark or celebration. We are very likely to spend the rest of our lives measuring other backs against him, and finding them wanting. All while never *really* knowing how good he was, since the era had changed so dramatically under Reid, and there's really no good way to know how he stacks up to the all-timers.

So this list is for those of us who had the pleasure to watch him, and just want to hold on to the last eight years for a little bit longer. He was, in my opinion, the best to ever play the position for this team, and if there's justice, he'll go to Canton for it. And since he played in the Internet Age, we'll always have these moments to look back on.

9) Skinned.
November 2007 in Washington, DC. With the club down late in yet another sloppy game to their southern rivals, facing a sixth loss and likely playoff elimination, Dub takes a screen pass and saves the season. If there's ever been a better RB on a screen pass, I haven't seen him.

Note the patience before the throw and when he sets up the first line of blocks, then the burst through the hole, and finally, how the man was rarely, if ever, denied when he got close to paydirt. The Eagle OL always seemed to come alive when it had the chance to hurt people on a Dub screen; on this play, Jon Runyan and Shawn Andrews do the honors with particular relish.

8) Last dance in Dallas.
A bittersweet memory in real time, as Dub goes for 27 yards to end the third quarter with a semblance of pride, and the drive ends in a touchdown that cut the lead to 20. It was his last play as an Eagle, and I think we all knew it as it was happening.

7) Saintly leap. In Dub's outstanding 2006-7, when he more or less carried the team and Jeff Garcia to three straight road division wins for a playoff berth, then owned the Giants in the first round, they even used him at the goal line to gain a first half lead in New Orleans. Conservation had its limits.

Was the man a solid goal line back that had his lifetime touchdown totals and Hall of Fame case chipped away by his coach? I'd say yes. But then again, we did have the man for 8 years, or twice the lifespan of the average RB.

6) Viking Him. For 53 minutes in a 2008 road playoff game against the Vikings, Dub had done little, as the always tough Vikings run defense had keyed on him and had their way with the offensive line. Then this happened.

That's another thing about the man. You could keep him down all day, then still have him beat you. Dub never let the opponent take him out of the game mentally, even if he had fumbled earlier. The man he was a clean slate from play to play. (And if you want to get morbid, it might have been his last really big play, seeing how he didn't do much in the Arizona loss the following week, and 2009-10 was pretty much a washout.)

5) Saving Private Jackson. I think we all remember this play.

What people forget is that one play later, Dub cleaned up DeSean Jackson's mess and took it in from the one.

Now, imagine how much worse it would have been for the rook had the drive been stalled there, or if a turnover had happened. He'd have been blamed for the eventual loss, the media would have gone 24/7 on him for a week, and I'm not entirely sure he would have recovered... let alone gone on to have one of the best years in franchise history as a sophomore in 2009. When you watch DJ for the rest of his career, remember the solid that Dub did for him, on national television, when he needed it most.

4) Fantasy Nightmare. Millions of nerds will never forget, or forgive, Dub for this moment of putting reality before fantasy. This is why no one but you cares about your fantasy football team.

Personally, it made me smile all over, because it was one more time that the man stuck it to the Cowboys, and we got to see Jerruh Jones stomp around the sideline like the whiny little punk he is. Good times, Dub.

3) Super Dub. In the one Super Bowl appearance of Westbrook's career as an Eagle, Dub picks up 104 yards from scrimmage, including the tying touchdown near the end of the third quarter on a 10-yard screen. He only gains 44 yards on 15 carries as Reid calls 51 passes to 17 runs, and the team falls to the Spygate Patriots, 24-21. But at least he's got the poster.

2) Antonio Gets Pierced. One of my favorite plays in Dub's career happens as he comes out of the backfield and finds himself with one on one coverage from Giants MLB Antonio Pierce. That didn't last long, and more or less ended the Giants season, while sparking the Eagles to another NFC championship. Once again, Dub came through at the end of a long day of ugly.

Sorry that the whole thing isn't handy on the Internets. But I'm pretty sure that Dub is saying "Meep meep" to Pierce in the rear view there.

1) Miracle at the Meadowlands II, Electric Westbrook Boogaloo. October 19, 2003. This was the moment, really, when we all knew we had something special. Dub's rookie year wasn't all that much, with just 55 total touches for less than three hundred yards, with one passing touchdown and two fumbles. The 2002 team relied on Duce Staley and Dorsey Levens to get things done, with the backs combining for over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, despite the "best" wideout being Todd Pinkston (no, seriously). With a 12-4 team that made it to the conference championship, there wasn't much reason to force feed the rookie.

2003 was a different story, with Reid starting to get him routine touches, using him in the return game, and watching him score on the ground in three straight games leading into the game in New York. Coming off a loss in Dallas, the team was 2-3 and playing the equally desperate Giants in a battle to avoid being last in the NFC East. Had they lost that game, it's very likely that the season would have gone into the toilet as well...

And, well, they were horrible.

The Giants absolutely had their way with the offense, earning 25 first downs to the Eagles 9. New York had 339 yards to the Eagles 134, and McNabb would finish the game with one of his worst efforts as a pro (9 of 23 for 64 yards with a pick, and no rushing yards either).

Thanks to Kerry Collins and the Giant running attack not being able to do much in the red zone, the game was still in theoretical reach, but when I was watching it, I had absolutely no faith in the offense to win this game. The 2003 season, after two straight championship game appearances and losses, looked done, and perhaps the whole Reid era with it. New York took a knee three times to use up all of Philly's timeouts, then punted it deep with 76 seconds left.

So Westbrook took it inside his 20 and returned it for a touchdown and the win.

I've watched football for 35 years now. It remains the biggest theft of a game that I've ever seen. (I'm sure you can see it on the following Hulu link, but I don't have Flash 10 right now, so I can't point you to the time.)

On this day, thanks to his return yardage and the passing game being useless, Westbrook accounted for 76% of the Eagle offense, all of their non-kicker points, and lit the spark for a nine-game wining streak and third straight NFC championship game appearance. He'd end the year with just under 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns, setting the stage for his breakout 2004, and 2007, when he was the best RB in football. (Yes, really.)

Now, is it overstating the case that this return saved the season, established his entire future career, kept the town from tearing apart McNabb (who, after this game, had the worst QB rating in the league after six games), and also bought Reid freedom from worry?

Well, there's no way to know for sure, of course. But I'm thinking yes. And that, more than anything, is what makes it sad that they couldn't retire him in the jersey, even though he's probably got 1-2 years and $2-4M to earn, especially if he's used by a good team in the right way. He's earned the right, of course.

Anyway... good bye, Dub. You were loved, and there isn't a fan in town that doesn't wish you well. Or an opponent that isn't happy to see you go.


Tracer Bullet said...

The punt return was more important, but my favorite was the screen against Pierce. There is nothing I love more than watching an overrated hump like him get humiliated.

One you left out that sticks in my mind was from the 49er game in '07(?). He popped through the line and a DB had the angle on him. Westbrook completely stoned the dude with a stiff arm, shoved him to the ground and scored. Manful, it was.

DMtShooter said...

I couldn't quite find a definitive Dub straight arm in the hours of combing through clips and seasons, but his was a freaking weapon, especially as he got older and relied more on power than moves.

The trouble is that most of the clips online are montages, which are nice and all, but don't exactly suit the need to make you remember him as he was, in specific plays. But you are right in spades, especially on plays when he was smelling the end zone and matched against a DB. He'd nail them so hard, you half expected the refs to call him for a penalty.

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