Les Bowen: Tough for Eagles to replace Westbrook

Posted: November 17, 2009

WHEN DONOVAN McNABB was asked Sunday about the impact of losing Brian Westbrook again, the quarterback talked about the importance of veteran leadership. It was a theme McNabb brought up earlier in the season, when asked what the loss of Kevin Curtis meant to the receiving corps.

Lots of fans have forgotten Curtis was ever part of the receiving corps, and some are just as eager to put the Westbrook Era behind them; the Eagles have all these bright, shiny new toys. Why hang onto the old and infirm?

My answer is, because they aren't going to the Super Bowl behind a 21-year-old Shady McCoy.

Maybe it seems silly to bring up the Super Bowl, with the Birds at 5-4. They aren't numbered in the realm of contenders right now, just as they weren't a year ago, just as the Cardinals weren't last season until they started winning playoff games. The Eagles remain alive for the postseason, and the only point in making the playoffs is to get to the Super Bowl.

I thought it was revealing that McCoy, promising and precocious as he is, did not touch the ball Sunday until Westbrook came to the sideline - "foggy," as Reid described him yesterday - having collided helmet-to-helmet with Chargers safety Eric Weddle, Westbrook falling forward over Stacy Andrews. It seemed that as long as they thought they had a healthy Westbrook, the Birds were content to let McCoy watch and learn.

In fact, when Westbrook came off the field on third-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter, little-used Eldra Buckley got the ball. After the game, Reid said he used Buckley in that spot because he knew the ex-Chargers practice-squad player would "hit it up in there." If you're really into dissecting subtext, one of McCoy's problems has been that he tends to dance into the hole when it looks less than promising, hoping to break outside, or at least make a tackler miss, instead of sticking his nose in and taking a yard or 2. That's typical for rookies who could always find open space in college.

Even if Westbrook can't be what he was 2 years ago, the Eagles need him. He picks up blitzes, doesn't drop screens, reads the blocks correctly, gives McCoy an example to follow while taking pressure off his shoulders. And as McNabb would tell you, if you strapped him to a polygraph, you just can't win - really win, as in the Super Bowl - with an entire arsenal of skill-position players who can't walk into a bar without having to show a driver's license. Experience counts in tight spots.

Obviously, the most important question is Westbrook's long-term health; that concern is being addressed elsewhere in this section today. But the Eagles' season might hang on whether No. 36 can come back and contribute.

Developing Storylines

* Before this gets started: No, Larry Johnson would be a horrible idea. He isn’t suited to the offense, he’s lost his jump. He seems bound for the Bengals and even coach Marvin Lewis said he would be inactive.

* Eagles fans are visible at just about every road game, but their presence Sunday was especially prominent. The combination of a really desirable travel destination and available tickets – the Chargers usually scramble to avoid being blacked out locally – produced a Qualcomm Stadium crowd that sounded like the Linc, when the Birds were making their too-late comeback. Yesterday’s San Diego Union Tribune called it “probably the biggest display of opposing fans at Qualcomm in at least a couple of years.” Weather probably won’t be as welcoming in Chicago this week, but apparently the Windy City also contains bars, and more than likely, there will be Eagles fans.

* Surprising decision to dress corner Ramzee Robinson, an Eagle for five days who couldn’t possibly know the defense, ahead of Jack Ikegwuonu, who’s been practicing all season and studying the scheme for a year and a half. This can’t say good things about Ikegwuonu’s progress, as he tries to strengthen the leg muscles around his devastating 2008 knee injury. It’ll be interesting to see if Ikegwuonu has a role this week, should Sheldon Brown be sidelined by his hamstring injury. I was thinking that since Quintin Demps apparently was close to being able to go at San Diego, maybe he’ll play in the dime or something at Chicago, but when Andy Reid used the term “high ankle sprain” yesterday in describing Demps’ injury, well, that didn’t sound good. Study hard, Ramzee.

* The weekly Michael Vick cameo was as frustrating as usual. This time the idea was for Vick to throw. Pass floated behind a wide-open DeSean Jackson, still quite catchable. Jackson dropped it and Vick left the field. If Jackson catches the ball, does Vick get another snap? Meanwhile, San Diego joined the list of opponents that have run the Wildcat successfully against the Birds. At least we’ve found one defense it consistently fools.

* Todd Herremans really fought the good fight at left tackle. Funny how the Birds spent a boatload of money this past offseason to avoid starting Herremans and Winston Justice at the tackles. Herremans and Justice weren’t why they lost.

Who Knew ...

You could throw for 450 yards and lose?

Obscure Stat

Ten first downs and 147 second-quarter passing yards netted the Eagles only a pair of field goals.

Extra Point

I understood what Andy Reid was saying about the defense yesterday, in his recap, but I think he was being unrealistic.

After correctly noting that field goals instead of touchdowns on the Birds’ first three scoring drives “affected the outcome,” and that nine penalties is too many, Reid targeted San Diego’s last drive, when the Chargers scrubbed more than six and a half minutes off the clock before giving the ball back following a field goal with 30 seconds left. “I expect more from my defense than that,” Reid said.

Well, yeah, except what I saw was one of the league’s best quarterbacks, Phillip Rivers, throwing to one of the league’s top receiving corps, picking on Dimitri Patterson and Ramzee Robinson in coverage. Chris Gocong, a middle linebacker for the first time since high school, studied hard all week but had no chance of playing the kind of flowing, instinctive downhill game that makes that position effective in the Birds’ defense. This was not a day to put the game in the hands of the D. Yeah, it’s too bad the Chargers gobbled up the clock, but the offense blew this one much earlier.

A couple remaining timeouts might have come in handy, as well. *

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