There’s plenty of optimism in the Philadelphia Eagles’ camp these days, and with good reason.
The team that made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game last season had a dynamite offseason, acquiring key pieces like offensive linemen Jason Peters and Stacy Andrews, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, running back LeSean McCoy, fullback Leonard Weaver, and cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
But there’s also one big reason to be worried about the 2009 season, and that’s because of the status of one of the smallest players on the team—running back Brian Westbrook, who had surgery last week to repair a damaged ankle.
Everyone knows Westbrook is the Eagles’ most productive player, whether he’s running with the ball or catching it, and he’s annually among the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage. But Westbrook’s value goes beyond statistics. In fact, the area where he’s most valuable to the Eagles doesn’t show up on any stat sheet.
It’s time—specifically, the amount of time that enemy defensive coordinators spend each week planning and plotting to stop the dynamic running back. The NFL is different than other professional sports teams in that regard. In baseball, basketball, and hockey, teams play almost every night and there’s little time for practice and preparation.
The NFL, however, plays just once a week, and that league is all about practice and preparation.
Every NFL team has its own system of offense and defense and coaches have to tailor their game-plan each week to the strengths and weaknesses of their next opponent.
The Eagles don’t prepare the same way to play the Giants’ 4-3 defense as they prepare for the Steelers’ 3-4 defense, just like they don’t prepare for the Colts’ high-flying passing game as they do for the Ravens’ punishing running attack.
The same holds for individual players, and that brings us back to Westbrook. Imagine you’re in the middle of a defense that’s getting ready to play the Eagles. As you look across the line of scrimmage, which player gets your attention? Which player are you most concerned about? Which player scares you?
It used to be quarterback Donovan McNabb because of his ability to scramble and run for big yardage. That was something defenses simply couldn’t plan for and that drove defensive coordinators crazy.
But even though McNabb is still one of the better QBs in the NFL, he’s no longer the running threat he was in the past. Teams still respect him, but they don’t fear him anymore.
How about the Eagles’ receivers? Well, none of them give enemy defensive coordinators sleepless nights. Sure, they have to account for speedy DeSean Jackson, but the rest of the Eagles receivers are pretty ordinary players. Devising a defense to stop them is no big deal.
That leaves only Westbrook. When opposing teams start watching tapes of the Eagles on Monday, they’re mostly focused on No. 36, on where he lines up and how they’re going to stop him, or at least slow him down.
And that’s what will be missing if Westbrook isn’t in the lineup on opening day. It will be much easier for opposing teams to prepare for the Eagles, which means it will be much easier for opposing teams to beat the Eagles.
Perhaps rookie LeSean McCoy, the second-round pick from Pittsburgh, will grow into that role. Then again, maybe not. Certainly, the Eagles can’t bank on that.
They learned that the hard way over the past few years, when promising young running backs Ryan Moats and Tony Banks failed to live up to their potential. They were supposed to take some of the pressure off of Westbrook; instead, they put more pressure on him.
So, Eagles fans will have their fingers crossed, and maybe their toes, too, as Westbrook rehabilitates his surgically-repaired knee. Everyone will be watching his progress—and that includes opposing coaches and players.