The Philadelphia Eagles will be signing former All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook to a one-day contract on Friday, where Westbrook will officially retire as an Eagle. In eight seasons with the Eagles, Westbrook stated his case as the team’s best overall RB since Hall of Famer (and recently deceased) Steve Van Buren—although LeSean McCoy is making a strong case of his own, considering McCoy is still just 24 years old and entering only his fourth NFL season.
All things factored in, who was better during their prime—Westbrook or McCoy? As a fan who has watched every game of each of their careers, I’ll take a close look in several key areas before ultimately coming to a decision.
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.
Brian Westbrook: Westbrook is one of the greatest receiving backs I’ve ever seen in my life, and at times, he was Donovan McNabb’s best option in the passing game. Westbrook caught 60 passes for four straight years, and he topped out at a ridiculous 90 receptions in 2007, totaling 771 yards and five touchdowns in the receiving game.
Westbrook was a threat to score every time he touched the ball, especially as a receiver out of the backfield where he made screen passes his speciality. He had the amazing 52-yard touchdown reception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2006 with 16 seconds left—a game the Philadelphia Eagles then lost on a walkoff 62-yard field goal.
He also had a 57-yard screen pass touchdown against the Washington Redskins to seal a 33-25 win in 2007. Westbrook has caught as many as 14 passes in a game, and he’s a good bet for four to five receptions per contest in his prime.
LeSean McCoy: McCoy has averaged 55 receptions for 405 yards and two touchdowns per season since he was drafted in 2009, and he topped out in ’10 with 78 receptions for 592 yards and a pair of scores.
McCoy isn’t utilized as heavily out of the backfield because the Eagles have significantly better receivers now with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin than they did in Westbrook’s prime with Kevin Curtis and Donte’ Stallworth.
The Verdict: This one goes to Westbrook fairly easily. McCoy still hasn’t hit his prime, but Westbrook caught 90 passes one year and topped 60 for four straight. I don’t think McCoy will ever again hit 78 and he has averaged just 55 at this point in his career.
Brian Westbrook: Westbrook never stayed healthy as much as he should have, and in fact, never played 16 games in a season once in his career. Westbrook missed 21 games in his eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles, averaging 2.6 missed games per season. During the prime of his career from 2003 through 2008, Westbrook missed an average of exactly two games per season.
LeSean McCoy: It’s been just three seasons for LeSean McCoy, but he’s proven to be remarkably more durable than Westbrook. He's played in 46 of a possible 48 games, missing just one in 2010 and one in 2011.
The Verdict: McCoy has played just three seasons and his seasonal average of games missed will likely increase, but right now, he’s averaging just 0.67 missed games per year. That’s pretty good.
LeSean McCoy was a better runner and he’s been more durable than Brian Westbrook, but Westbrook was a significantly better receiver and an exceptional punt returner as well, a facet of the game McCoy doesn’t handle.
Neither fumbles very frequently at all and neither was asked to block much during their time in Philly. Westbrook’s top moments are the 84-yard punt return against the New York Giants, the screen pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the genius decision to kneel the ball at the 1-yard line against the Dallas Cowboys in 2007.
Meanwhile, McCoy has the distinction of having set the franchise single-season record in total touchdowns (20), and many more highlights will come as he plays more and more.
For now, I’ll give the verdict to Westbrook because he’s played longer in an Eagles uniform and I think he was a better combination of skills during his prime than McCoy.