Phil Sheridan: Shut Westbrook down for season

Posted: November 17, 2009

It was like watching a live reenactment of a highlight from the past, like getting to see Randall Cunningham scramble again or Julius Erving soaring in for a dunk.

Donovan McNabb dropped back and flipped a little screen pass over the heads of the Chargers' defensive linemen. And there was Brian Westbrook, gathering it in with open space in front of him. Just like the old days.

It was a bittersweet moment - a reminder of just how breathtaking Westbrook could be, how utterly impossible to cover, but also of how long it had been since we had seen that. And with that, of course, came the realization that we might never see Westbrook truly be Westbrook again.

Even before the two concussions, three weeks apart, that cast a pall over his career, a series of injuries had robbed Westbrook of some of his otherworldly explosiveness.

Maybe it is premature to write an elegy to Westbrook's career. Frankly, I hope it is. Maybe if he shuts it down for 2009 and rests his body - from his jostled brain to his knees to his chronically sore ankles - there's a chance for him to heal completely and regain that spark. Maybe.

Coach Andy Reid said yesterday that it was "too soon" to know if Westbrook's second concussion - sustained on another screen pass, later in the game - would end his season.

It may be "too soon" for Reid, but it is too late for Westbrook. Whatever a franchise's responsibility for allowing an injured player to return, it is ultimately up to the player to decide whether his future ability to speak and think clearly means more than extending an already special football career.

Westbrook needs friends and family to tell him, right now, that his 2009 season is over and that 2010 and beyond depend entirely on how his brain recovers after six months without trauma.

In my first year covering the Eagles, the team traded Wilbert Montgomery to the Detroit Lions during training camp for a linebacker named Garry Cobb. Long before he was G. Cobb and commenting on the team on his own Web site, he was the compensation for one of the most beloved players in Eagles history. And you know what? The Eagles got the better of that trade.

The writers who had covered Montgomery talked about him with near reverence, a rarity among the sometimes cynical scribes. There was a toughness about Wilbert that had the folksy old trainer, Otho Davis, shaking his head in awe. For a while, the equipment man wouldn't give out No. 31. He had informally retired the number out of respect for the guy.

But Montgomery was finished by the time he was traded to the Lions in the summer of 1985. He was 30 years old. He had played in 107 games and logged 9,696 yards from scrimmage - many of them on the cruel artificial turf of Veterans Stadium. He appeared in only seven more games with the Lions.

We don't have as much access to the inner workings of the Eagles anymore. The trainer's rooms at the NovaCare Complex and the Linc are well-hidden from the media. Instead of waiting at Montgomery's locker, a few feet from the door to Davis' lair, we sit in an arid interview room and wait for Westbrook to appear, patched up and encased in a designer suit.

The really big guys, the ones who deliver the bruises, are much bigger, faster, and stronger than they were in Montgomery's day. The guys who take the hits haven't changed as much. There is more weight-room bulk on Westbrook than there was on his predecessors at the position, but he is listed at only 5-foot-10 and 203 pounds.

Westbrook became one of the best players in the league, a matchup nightmare for defenses who routinely turned games around with dazzling big plays. One of the enduring thrills over the last six years has been that moment when Westbrook popped out of a pack with running room and a lineman or two in front of him.

Eagles fans got very, very lucky last year. Just as Westbrook faded, rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson appeared. He creates that same buzz, that same surge of anticipation when you realize he is open and the ball is on its way to him. Jackson's rocket ride to superstar status softened the loss of Westbrook, but also served to diminish our appreciation of what Westbrook had done.

The Eagles replaced their quick-strike threat as if they were changing a lightbulb. In with the new, out with the old.

So when Westbrook took in that screen pass with open space Sunday afternoon, it was a reminder of just how special he has been. If he can be that again, so much the better. If not, you hope someone has the sense to keep No. 36 out of circulation for a while.


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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