Nearing 30, Eagles' Westbrook at career crossroads

At 28, the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander was the 2005 NFL MVP and had 95 yards in Super Bowl XL . At 30, he may be done.
At 28, the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander was the 2005 NFL MVP and had 95 yards in Super Bowl XL . At 30, he may be done.
Posted: February 01, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. - The most accomplished running back in today's Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals is Edgerrin James. After barely getting off the bench for much of the season, James has played a huge role in the Cardinals' improbable playoff run. But at age 30, it is clear James' best days are behind him and it wouldn't be surprising if the team releases him rather than pay $5 million on the final year of his contract in 2009.

James' situation brings us to the Eagles and running back Brian Westbrook, who will be 30 on Sept. 2. The Eagles aren't in the Super Bowl, because they couldn't beat the Cardinals in the NFC championship game - and one reason for it was Westbrook's unproductive postseason.

An Eagles source said that Westbrook might require off-season knee surgery.

"I think they're running medical tests to determine the source of the irritation," the source said. "If he does need surgery, it's only going to be minor and he may not need it at all. We know he will rest and work hard in the off-season and we're optimistic he'll come back healthy."

Even the possibility of knee surgery for Westbrook is a significant off-season issue for the Eagles, but it also points to the common problem for running backs his age, even great ones.

Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander was the NFL most valuable player in the 2005 season and led his team to Super Bowl XL. He ran 20 times for 95 yards, albeit in defeat, against the Steelers.

At 28, Alexander was the best

running back in football. The Seahawks rewarded him with an eight-year, $62 million contract after the season and $15 million of that was paid in 2006. Now 31, Alexander is unemployed and his career is probably over.

Westbrook carried the ball 50 times for 119 yards and caught seven passes for 119 yards in the playoffs. Those are pedestrian numbers for a running back who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2007. Westbrook had a crucial 71-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass in the playoff win over the Minnesota Vikings, but he averaged 8 yards for the other six catches and 2.4 yards for his runs.

Westbrook wasn't nearly as dynamic or dangerous during the regular season as he had been in 2007. He dropped from first in the NFL to 18th among running backs in yards from scrimmage after signing a contract extension worth $21 million in early August. In fairness, Westbrook had to deal with an assortment of injuries, including a high ankle sprain and swelling in his left knee that has bothered him at various stages of his career.

Whatever the ailments, it's worth considering whether the Westbrook of 2007 will ever surface again at Lincoln Financial Field. Westbrook declined to be interviewed, but two great NFL running backs talked extensively about the Eagles' star player.

"Should people be worried about him?" Marshall Faulk asked rhetorically. "I'm not going to say 'No.' But what they should see is that, although he did hurt his knee, he continued to play throughout the season. He missed two games and that's what you want. As a running back, people are going to get banged up. You're not always going to feel good, but it's the guy who continues to play versus the guy that sits out and needs time to heal. You can't play running back if you need to sit out and heal up."

Nobody can deny Westbrook's toughness. Once perceived as fragile, Westbrook proved otherwise by averaging 14.1 games per year. Faulk, who played through his share of injuries during his 12-year career with Indianapolis and St. Louis, averaged 14.7 games per season.

"As for being 30, it's a benchmark for when running backs start to feel not so good," Faulk said.

Westbrook is often compared to Faulk, because both have been prolific receivers coming out of the backfield. Faulk, whose career ended at the age of 32 after the 2005 season, said Westbrook's body has less wear and tear than his own at the same age.

"Think about Westbrook's career and his number of touches," Faulk said.

According to the team source, that's exactly what the Eagles think about.

"We do studies on touches versus age," the source said. "If you just take the age into consideration, it would suggest he's winding down. If you study the touches, it shows he has a few good years left."

By the time Faulk reached the age of 30, he had touched the ball 3,158 times in nine seasons. That's an average of 351 times per season. Westbrook, by contrast, has 1,809 career touches in seven seasons. That's an average of 258 per season.

"It's like a boxer," Faulk said. "How many times do you get hit? He hasn't had a lot of touches. His first couple of years, he was just a guy that would come in every once in a while to run a screen and he returned punts. For the most part, I don't think his shelf life is something to be worried about right now."

Terrell Davis, the former Denver Broncos running back who was the best player in football at 26 and finished three years later, agreed with Faulk that Westbrook has some miles left in his legs.

"He's definitely not the same guy as when he first came into the league or even two years ago," Davis said. "But I still think he can be productive. Brian doesn't run the ball a lot. His runs are short passes, but he's still getting banged. I think he can still be productive in terms of his role. If he was getting the ball 20 times a game, you'd be more concerned. I think a guy like him can extend his career. He's a lot like Marshall and Marshall was productive until he left the game."

Faulk, however, was a lot less effective after 30. He never rushed for 1,000 yards after the age of 28.

"You can't show me a 30-year-old man who was the same as he was at 20," Faulk said.

If Westbrook's chronic left knee that has bothered him since his days at DeMatha High School in Washington, D.C., gets worse, it could be an ominous situation. The high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 3 against Pittsburgh could heal with off-season rehabilitation allowing him to come back strong in 2009.

"The only thing worse than a high ankle sprain is a bad toe for a running back," Faulk said. "It demobilizes you. Your lateral movement is off. A knee [injury] is something you can warm up and play with. It's a joint. The high ankle sprain, it's in such a spot that you feel immobile."

When the subject is the health of a running back, the future is always uncertain.

"Very much indeed," Faulk said. "I played on turf my whole career and Emmitt [Smith] played on turf his whole career. I hurt my knee and he didn't hurt his knee. Look at every team, all 53 players on every team, and pick out who's going to blow out their ACL. Would you have picked Tom Brady this season?"

Faulk, who played in two Super Bowls with the Rams, said he thought he was the first to know that his final days were approaching.

"The first guy never used to touch or tackle me," Faulk said. "I was always looking for the second guy who tried to hit me. The minute I started worrying about the first guy, I was like, 'Whoa, that ain't right.' I wasn't hurt when that started happening. I was healthy and the first guy was getting me."

Perhaps that's something to watch when Westbrook returns to work in September.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or

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