Rich Hofmann: Brian Westbrook proved to be worth the risk

Posted: August 31, 2012

EVERY YEAR, the Eagles stage workouts for draft-eligible college players from the Philadelphia area - some as a courtesy, some because they are interested. On that day in the spring of 2002, in a Villanova running back named Brian Westbrook, the Eagles were cautiously interested.

They had watched Westbrook play for Andy Talley at Villanova and could see a versatile, explosive playmaker. But they had seen the medical reports, too, and could see that Westbrook had torn his ACL in high school, and slipped on some ice at Villanova and underwent surgery, and that the knee was not right and would never be right.

With that, Westbrook came to see them. The quarterback who threw to him that day was kind of erratic, but that was only the beginning of the story.

"I remember the day I brought him down for his local workout - and it was like gale force winds," Eagles coach Andy Reid way saying Wednesday, after the ceremony that marked Westbrook's retirement from the NFL as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"We had the JUGS machine shooting punts at him. And he was starting on this hashmark," Reid said, pointing to his left, "and he was ending up catching them on the other field," he said, pointing to his right.

"It was crazy - and he didn't drop one. Right there, I thought, 'We've got to have this guy.' "

We all know what happened. The Eagles chose Westbrook in the third round of the draft and he ended up being their all-time leader in yards from scrimmage. He will forever be remembered for an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against the New York Giants, a late-game score that won a game and saved the 2003 season. It is the play Westbrook says he will always remember, too - and the play he says he will always relive through the call of Merrill Reese, the Eagles' radio voice.

Westbrook could run, catch, block and return punts, all while playing on a knee that required almost constant nursing. As he says, "When I think of myself, I think of Brian Westbrook from Fort Washington, Maryland, to DeMatha [High School], injuries, to Villanova, injuries, to Philadelphia, injuries. All of the good days, all of the bad days. A third-round pick who was too small, who would only be a special teams player, to an All-Pro, to a two-time Pro Bowl selection, to the franchise leader in total yards from scrimmage. It's been a great ride and I thank all of you people and everyone that has been here with me every step of the way."

But you wonder, all of these years later, how close the Eagles came to missing out on the first step, to being scared off by that knee. It is hard to imagine the great seasons of the early-and-mid-2000s without Westbrook being Westbrook, but it was not an easy decision.

"There was a concern," Reid said.

And were there no-votes among club decision-makers?

"Yes, there were," Reid said. Then he quickly added, "Put it this way: there was concern."

The calculated risks that teams take with medical issues are an under-discussed part of the drafting process. Well: when they take a risk and it blows up on them, it isn't under-discussed. But there are many other times when they hold the MRI report in one hand and cross the fingers of the other hand and make the pick. This was one of those times.

"We knew there was a risk, yes," Reid said. "But we also knew there was a reward because Brian did so many things that fit into this offense. He did things that allowed us to expand the offense, really. So there was all of that, and there were some who were a little bit [unsure]."

If it hadn't been for the knee, Reid said that Westbrook likely would have been a late first-round pick, or certainly a second-rounder. But the reality was that the knee was a concern, and there was no getting around it.

"If the doctors would have x-ed him out, we would have x-ed him out," Reid said. "We would have had to have done that. But they explained the risk involved. They kind of gave you percentages on it and made predictions."

But these were just guesstimates and everybody involved knew it. It wasn't a good knee and the position Westbrook played was probably the most dangerous in the sport. But the player had so much potential. So was it a risk that made sense?

As the Eagles began to work their way toward the decision of whether or not to put Westbrook on their draft board, Reid said that as he thinks back on that time, it was the voice of Rick Burkholder, the Eagles' head athletic trainer, that might just have carried the most weight.

"Rick thought there would be a risk, but he thought he could manage it," Reid said. "When he felt that way, I think that comforted everybody in there. So we did it, and we did the best we could to take care of him - which was tough sometimes, because Brian didn't want to skip anything. He wanted the ball every play and he wanted to practice every day, and we had to back him off."

Among the people Westbrook mentioned and thanked at Wednesday's ceremony was Burkholder. And after it was over, Reid thought back on two of the iffiest knees the team dealt with over the years: Westbrook's and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter's.

"They became two of our best ever, so . . . " Reid said.

On this day of celebration, he left the thought unfinished.


Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynew.com. Follow him on Twitter @theidlerich. Read his blog at philly.com/TheIdleRich, or for recent columns go to philly.com/RichHofmann.

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