John Smallwood: Longest running mystery: Does Eagles coach Reid get it?

Brian Westbrook's slump ended same time as Eagles' did, Dec. 7 at Giants.
Brian Westbrook's slump ended same time as Eagles' did, Dec. 7 at Giants.
Posted: January 02, 2009

AT THIS POINT, it probably wasn't even fair to broach the subject with Brian Westbrook.

He's been asked some variation of the same question countless times during this most peculiar Eagles season. Each time he's tried his best to provide an understandable answer.

Still, with the Eagles preparing to play at Minnesota in an NFC wild-card game on Sunday, there is an aura of uneasiness concerning the Eagles' offensive game plan.

Logic based on success would suggest that the game plan include a healthy dose of Westbrook running the football - even if Minnesota has the NFL's top-rated run defense.

Eagles coach Andy Reid once again said he considers Westbrook the top running back in football, along with Minnesota's MVP candidate, Adrian Peterson.

Vikings head coach Brad Childress, the Eagles' former offensive coordinator, conceded that the Birds' offense is "kick-[butt]" when Westbrook is operating on all cylinders.

Peterson suggested to the Eagles that they give Westbrook "the ball on every down."

So why is there a fear that Westbrook and the running game could again get lost in the details come Sunday?

"You're right," Westbrook said before taking a long pause when asked how he could be overlooked in the game plan. "I don't have the answer for that. I just don't have the answer."

I've heard all of Reid's thoughts concerning the running game.

I've listened to explanations about passing in the first half to get leads and then running in the second to balance things out.

I don't care about any of that because I know only things that matter.

When Westbrook runs the football, the Eagles almost always win. When he doesn't run the football, they almost always lose.

Westbrook has been active for 14 games this season.

The Eagles were 6-1 in games in which he rushed the football 15 times - which, by the way, is not an extraordinary number of carries.

Conversely, the Birds were 2-4-1 when he rushed fewer than 15 times. As a side note, one of those victories was against Pittsburgh when Westbrook got hurt but his backups combined for 16 carries, and the other was last week's 44-6 mauling of Dallas when he wasn't needed after rushing 13 times.

The Eagles are 8-0 when they have rushed at least 25 times, 1-6-1 when they haven't.

You'd think that would be all the evidence Reid would need to know he's got to tuck the ball under Westbrook's arms consistently. But we thought that when the Eagles carried a three-game winning streak into that huge game at Washington, a streak highlighted by a balanced pass-run ratio.

For whatever reason, the Eagles rushed the ball just 16 times compared to 46 passes, and lost, 10-3.

So the concern is that with Reid looking at a Vikings defense with a No. 1 rating against the run, he'll use that as justification for an all-out aerial assault.

"I think our goal is to try and go in and try to establish the run and push them around," Westbrook said. "We've played against teams that are very good against the run, and we've had success.

"I think, for us, it's very important to go out there and at least try to establish the run."

The problem isn't whether that message will travel from Westbrook's mouth to Reid's ears. The problem is whether Reid will bother to listen to it.

We know Reid is going to throw the ball more than he will run it. His offense is never going to be completely balanced.

He has said on numerous occasions that he believes this offense is most effective when it is operating on a 60-40 pass-run ratio.

When a coach has won more than 100 regular-season games in a decade, it's hard to find too much fault with his philosophy.

But Reid's ratio has failed him in the playoffs.

The Eagles' record in the postseason under Reid clearly indicates that when the offense gets too far away from the ground, the Birds lose.

The Eagles are 8-6 in 14 playoff games under Reid. In their eight wins, they passed the ball 258 times compared to 233 rushes, which equates to a pass-run ratio of 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent, well below Reid's desired threshold.

In the six losses, however, the Birds have aired it out 237 times to 120 rushes, a ratio of 66.7 percent to 33.3 percent.

Reid's Eagles are 8-1 in the playoffs when the rush the ball at least 25 times. They are 0-5 when they don't run at least 25 times.

Not surprisingly, when the Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons, 27-10, in the one NFC Championship Game the Eagles won with Reid, it was the only one in which they ran (33 times) more than they passed (27).

The Eagles have what they consider to be one of the NFL's best running backs in Westbrook. Their history during the postseason and this regular season shows they win when they commit to the run.

So if Andy Reid forgets about the rushing game Sunday, don't ask Brian Westbrook why.

He won't have the answer. *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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