Tuesday, February 22, 2010 is a date that will live in infamy in Philadelphia sports history as the end of the Brian Westbrook era.
One of the lynchpins of the Eagles' offense over the last decade, Westbrook was a beloved figure in the city’s sports world. And while his exit was long anticipated, it’s still one that will be bittersweet for most fans—many of whom may not have gotten over Brian Dawkins’ ouster in 2009.
But during his time in Philadelphia, Westbrook indelibly stamped his name into Eagles lore.
He leaves Philly as the franchise’s career and single-season leader in yards from scrimmage (with totals 9,785 and 2,104 respectively) as well as the record holder for most receptions in a season with 90.
Westbrook is also currently second in career rushing yards, third in career receptions and third in touchdowns in team history, and his total of 20 100-yard rushing games is tied for second most in team history.
Not a bad haul for a small, speedy back from a then-Division I-AA school.
Numbers aside, “No. 36” provided dozens of memorable runs, quotes and moments throughout his seven years in the City of Brotherly Love—but the five in the pages ahead are a quintet that will never be forgotten.
By 2003, Andy Reid had turned a downtrodden franchise back into a winner.
From 2000-2002, the Birds won 34 regular season games and a pair of NFC East division titles and made two straight appearances in the NFC Championship Game.
But with just 90 seconds left in their 2003 Week 6 game against the Giants, the Birds were down 10-7 and on the verge of dropping to 2-4.
Then, the miracle happened.
Westbrook fielded Giants punter Jeff Feagles’ boot at the Eagles’ 16-yard line, made one cut and took off down the sidelines.
A few seconds later, he hit the end zone. 13-10 Eagles, and David Akers’ extra point provided the final tally in a come-from-behind four-point victory. It was a huge turning point in the season, and fellow Eagles contributor Bryn Swartz even named it in a 2009 B/R article as one of his Top 20 Moments as a Philadelphia Sports Fan.
The Giants ended up finishing 4-12 that year, while the Birds rode that touchdown to an eight-game winning streak—one that earned them another division title, playoff home-field advantage and a third straight berth in the conference title tilt.
While Westbrook was never an elite “runner” per se, this was the first shining moment that showed exactly how much of a dual (and for parts of his career, triple) threat he would be.
2007 was a tough season for the Eagles. But during Week 14, they got perhaps the highlight of the year.
Late in the fourth quarter, the 6-8 Birds clung to a 10-6 lead over the 12-1 Cowboys in Texas Stadium. Dallas had just called their final timeout with 2:19 to go, and the Eagles had a first-and-10 at the Dallas 25.
Westbrook took a handoff from Donovan McNabb, squirted through the line and hit the open field, running away from Dallas defenders for what could have been an easy touchdown.
Instead, he made perhaps the smartest play of his career, heeding the advice right tackle Jon Runyan had given him in the huddle moments before.
Knowing that the Cowboys were out of timeouts, Runyan told Westbrook “if you get down near the goal line, just take a knee.”
No. 36 did just that, kneeling down at the one-yard line after a 24-yard gain.
That brought the clock down to 2:00, and three kneeldowns later, the Birds had scored a monumental upset. They would go on to win the final two games and finish 8-8, avoiding their second losing season in three years.
All because one smart cookie from Villanova (aided by another from Michigan) knew that a four-point lead was more insurmountable than a 10- or 11-point one.
Entering the final game of a tough 2007 season, Brian Westbrook stood on the precipice of Eagles history.
When the Eagles took the field against the Bills, Westbrook had 86 catches and 2,005 yards – just two grabs and a solitary yard away from the single-season team records held by Wilber Montgomery (2,006) and Irving Fryar (88).
It didn’t take him long to erase those names.
On just the Birds’ second play, Westbrook slashed for a 10-yard run to give him the record at 2,015. Less than 15 game minutes later, he hauled in a 30-yard pass from Donovan McNabb to make his 89th catch of the year and set that record as well.
Westbrook finished the game with 2,104 yards from scrimmage (which also led the NFL) and 90 catches (which ranked fourteenth), an incredible feat for a running back.
While 2008 was a season to forget for the 8-8 Birds, Westbrook became a 75-year-old franchise’s greatest player in a pair of huge offensive categories.
It was like déjà vu all over again: fourth quarter of a late-season road game against a nearly-undefeated divisional opponent, with the underachieving Eagles clinging to hope of a playoff spot.
This time, the 6-5-1 Birds were at the Meadowlands for a clash with the 11-1 Giants…and as the fourth quarter began, they held a tenuous 10-7 lead.
On the third play of the period, the Eagles faced a third-and-11 at the Giants’ 40. Donovan McNabb dropped back and hit his checkdown, Westbrook, over the middle—and the rest is one of the most iconic images of the decade.
Westbrook took off, leaving Giants’ middle linebacker Antonio Pierce sucking wind as he futilely tried to chase the speedster down.
He scored what was essentially the game-winning tally, Pierce earned a legacy he never was able to live down, and the Birds went on to win three of their final four to sneak into the playoffs—where they made an improbable run to their fifth NFC Championship Game of the decade.
While not necessarily a huge turning point, the photo of Pierce struggling to catch Westbrook from behind has been invoked numerous times since, including in conversations after Pierce’s release from the Giants earlier this month.
“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.” -T.S. Eliot
Fans were overjoyed when Brian Westbrook finally returned to the field in 2009 after missing nearly half the season with concussion issues.
But it was clear that not only was No. 36 no longer the player he once was, he also wasn’t really a part of the offense at all.
And on the final play of the third quarter of the Birds’ wild-card loss to the Cowboys, he made his only contribution of the game: a 27-yard reception that continued the Eagles’ second (and last) scoring drive.
And there, it was done. In his last game as an Eagle, Westbrook—the man who had nearly 10,000 yards from scrimmage, a trio of team records and the respect of thousands—put up an underwhelming line of one catch for 27 yards.
For Brian Westbrook, such was how his world in Philadelphia came to an end.