Linebacker Witherspoon has fit seamlessly into Eagles defense

Eagles linebacker Will Witherspoon wraps up Cowboys tight end Jason Witten last Sunday.
Eagles linebacker Will Witherspoon wraps up Cowboys tight end Jason Witten last Sunday.
Posted: January 08, 2010

WHENEVER a player switches teams, there is always a degree of apprehension that he takes with him as he settles into his new surroundings. In the case of veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon, who came over to the Eagles 6 weeks into the season in an October deal with St. Louis, it was vital to him that he immediately prove his value, if only to show his new teammates he would not be "the weak link in the chain."

He did.

And then some.

Against the Redskins in his Eagles debut on Oct. 26 at Washington, Witherspoon intercepted a pass and scored a touchdown, sacked quarterback Jason Campbell and forced a fumble. It was a game that Witherspoon calls "unbelievably thrilling," the perfect conclusion to a week that began with a Rams team that would win just one game this season and ended with an Eagles squad that would earn a playoff berth against the Cowboys tomorrow evening in Dallas. Because of the way the schedule fell, he ended up being just the fifth player in history to appear in 17 regular-season games since the concept of the bye week was introduced in 1990.

"It's a long haul," said Witherspoon, who was acquired to shore up the linebacker corps depleted by injuries to Stewart Bradley and Omar Gaither. "You feel it. But at this point of the season, when you're in the position we're in, you've got to forget about it. You've got to play on a whole other level."

No one has to remind Witherspoon the position the Eagles are in at this point. "It's win or go home," said Witherspoon, who said yesterday that "no one in here is going to shut it down just because of what happened last week."

What happened was a 24-0 whipping at the hands of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and an offense that toyed with the Eagles' defense, which produced just one turnover. While Witherspoon has been less than conspicuous in the big-play department since the Washington game, he said the outcome against the Cowboys will hinge on "which team is on the plus side when it comes to turnovers."

"What we have to do is play within the defense," Witherspoon said. "No one has to do more than what they are asked to do."

Getting a chance to escape St. Louis in exchange for wide receiver Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round pick in October came as a surprise to Witherspoon, who said that "the whole thing came out of the blue." He was driving in his car when St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney called and said, "Will, I want you to know we traded you." When Witherspoon discovered where he would be going, he could not have been more pleased. The Eagles were a playoff contender and played a style of defense with which he had some familiarity, given that Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo once worked under late Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. The 6-1, 239-pound Witherspoon played two games at middle linebacker before being switched over to the weakside.

Owner of a 450-acre, fully working farm in Missouri, where he says he has "cows, sheep, chickens, horses and plenty of dogs," Witherspoon said the move has been "a little disruptive" for his family.

"My kids are staying in school in St. Louis," said Witherspoon, who has flown home every other week on his off day. "Everybody understands - this is what my job entails. It's not like I'm leaving the planet. I'm a couple of hours away."

Immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia, Witherspoon spent 15 hours a day at the NovaCare Complex to bone up on the defensive system. Some of it was recognizable, but he said "some of the calls were totally different." Always what he described as a "quick study," he stepped on the field for the Redskins game feeling as if he had been with the team since minicamp. By the end of the game, he had the feeling that he belonged.

"By having that game in Washington, it solidified the view that, 'This guy has come in to work, not just to be here,' " he said. "I wanted to hold up my end of the bargain. Everyone says, 'You're only as strong as your weakest link.' Well, you don't want to be that weak link . . . It was great to come in and make plays for these guys, and know that I stepped in and did exactly what they expected me to do."

What Witherspoon hopes for is a return engagement in the Super Bowl. He was there with Carolina, which stopped the Eagles in the 2003-04 NFC Championship Game. Of that 14-3 victory over the Eagles, Witherspoon said, "I remember thinking how hard-nosed this game was going to be. It was a gritty game. And we kept pounding them." While the Panthers were beaten by the Patriots, 32-29, Witherspoon had 16 tackles.

"Of course," he said, "I was kind of overshadowed."

By who?

"By Janet Jackson," he said. In case you had forgotten, that was the year that the pop singer lost her top in what was later called a "wardrobe malfunction."

Whatever happens this year, Witherspoon said he is at a good point in his career, the place where ability and experience intersect. The 8-year veteran is under contract with the Eagles next year and said he hopes it continues to work out here. Beyond that, he wants to play as long as he can, despite the toll the NFL takes on players who have long careers.

"I love the game," he said. "And you have to love the game. If you don't, the game will kick you out itself. I have always set little goals. When I had my first contract, I said, 'All right, I want to get through this first 3-year deal.' Now I want to get to 10. If I can get 10 seasons, then I will go on from there."

He shrugged and with a chuckle added, "Why not, if I keep feeling good?"

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