Brian Westbrook: The criticism on Brian Westbrook early in his career was that he couldn’t handle the load of being the feature back in the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense, which led the team to draft Tony Hunt and sign a bruiser like Dorsey Levens to handle the 3rd-and-short and goal line carries.
Levens was a solid backup and Hunt flopped miserably, but the real thrill was seeing Westbrook evolve into an every-down back himself. After carrying the ball an average of just 154 times per season from 2003 through 2005, Westbrook handled 240 carries in 2006 and a career-high 278 in 2007, even finishing second among all NFL players in total touches (372) in ’07.
Westbrook topped out at 33 carries in a 20-14 win over the New York Giants in 2008, and the Eagles were 8-1 when he carried the ball as many as 22 times in a game, and 15-4 when he topped 100 yards on the ground. Westbrook wasn’t a power back, but he could run over a defender in his way and few players in the history of the league were as elusive as he was in the open field.
Westbrook almost never fumbled, sometimes playing full seasons without losing control of the ball once. He didn’t fumble at all in 217 total touches in 2005 and he fumbled just 12 times in his entire NFL career, an average of once every nearly 150 touches. In comparison, Adrian Peterson has fumbled every 70 touches, LaDainian Tomlinson is at once every 126 touches, and Chris Johnson is at once every 138 touches.
LeSean McCoy: Like Brian Westbrook, McCoy wasn’t picked in the first round, but still grew into arguably the best all-around running back in the league. McCoy split carries with Westbrook in 2009, took over as the full-time back in 2010 and emerged as an elite player in 2011.
He has played just three seasons—only two as a regular back—but has shown he can handle the load. McCoy was seventh in the league in carries last year and fourth in overall touches for a running back, and he’s only going to get better.
The All-Pro has topped out at as many as 30 carries in a game, and the Philadelphia Eagles are 7-1 when he touches the ball more than 20 times. McCoy is every bit as elusive as Westbrook bu,t he’s also more of a power back—he will run through a player if he’s in his way, but his shiftiness is unparalleled around the game.
The Eagles are 8-1 when McCoy rushes for at least 100 yards, and in typical Andy Reid fashion, he went for a back that never fumbles the ball—McCoy’s rate of one fumble every 160 touches is currently the best of any running back in NFL history, and McCoy fumbled the ball just once in 321 touches in 2011.
The Verdict: I’ll give the edge to McCoy for several reasons. I think he’s farther along after just three seasons than Westbrook was at an equal point in his career. In fact, I think McCoy is a better pure runner now than Westbrook ever was, and he will likely just get better in the offense in which he plays.