Rich Hofmann (not the one you are thinking of) is a freelance sportswriter and Philadelphia sports fan. You can find him on Twitter at @richphilly20.
Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction” is, for the amount of time he’s on screen, one of my all-time favorite movie performances. Appearing at the house he was summoned to in hopes of making the work of Vincent Vega’s quick trigger disappear, he introduces himself by simply saying, “I’m Winston Wolf. I solve problems.” Not only is The Wolf memorable for his efficiency, never coming close to mincing words, but also his understated personality. The Wolf takes command of the room right away by his sheer presence. While he is the picture of confidence, he understands that is what works in really difficult spots. The Wolf delivers on his promise, and fixes Jules and Vincent’s problem. He bails them out.
The very same can be said about newly retired Brian Westbrook and the Philadelphia Eagles teams he played on.
When the offense only mustered 134 yards against the New York Giants in 2003, Westbrook bailed them out.
With the team’s backs against the wall against the 11-1 Giants in 2008, Westbrook bailed them out.
Nursing a late two-point lead in a road playoff game against a dangerous Vikings team, well, you know.
At Westbrook’s retirement press conference Wednesday, Andy Reid said he “never coached a player as smart” as the undersized back from Villanova. Thinking about that statement further, it really is an unorthodox way to describe a running back. On-field intelligence is usually attributed to quarterbacks, middle linebackers or safeties. Fair or not, in a quarterback-driven league, we focus on what goes on in their heads more than any other position.
On the other hand, “explosive” and “dynamic,” words to describe athletic ability, are the ones normally reserved for running backs. The thing you’ll hear most about the ball carrier’s thought process is the word “instinctive,” which really is a backhanded complement when describing a player’s total football acumen.
In the case of the former All-Pro though nobody raised an eyebrow, because Reid was one hundred percent correct. Westbrook’s intelligence could easily be found in every element of his game. First, there was the way he set-up his blockers on the screen pass. Westbrook would bide his time by shifting around, and then when the hole opened up, he accelerated like a Ferrari and went right through it. At the presser Wednesday, Westbrook gave all of his blockers credit for helping him out, when really most of the credit belongs to him. Yeah, the cliché story is that a running back is only as good as the guys in front of him, but it wasn’t true in Philadelphia during the Westbrook years. Brian Westbrook made his linemen better every time he stepped on the field, as evidenced by the ’08 playoff run when Nick Cole looked like one of The Seven Blocks of Granite.
Of course the linemen were far from the only ones he helped. The Eagles had one of the league’s most devastating offensive options in the middle part of the last decade, when Westbrook went out in motion and lined up as a wide receiver. The quarterbacks, especially Donovan McNabb, were the ones reaping the benefits in that scenario. If the other team put a linebacker on him, Westbrook treated it as a slap in the face, another chip on his shoulder, and easily got open time and again (My favorite example of this was an over-the-hill Antonio Pierce watching Westbrook run right by him at Giants Stadium).
The beauty of Westbrook’s pass routes were the simplicity of them all, usually just him running at a defender, planting a foot into the ground, and then there he was, wide-open.
Think about what a nightmare he was for defensive coordinators. On one hand, there was this back you had to game plan for, as a versatile outside and between the tackles runner, but you also had to account for him a receiver who was deadly after the catch, one you couldn’t cover with a linebacker because well, he would catch the ball against them. His impact on the offense during his career went far behind his numbers. Those numbers were pretty darn good, too.
Then there were the amazing catches Westbrook made, like the ball McNabb threw behind him on a crucial third down in his only Super Bowl appearance. The quickness and route running were already plenty, but when an errant ball was thrown his way, Westbrook also possessed the best hands on the team. On that play in Jacksonville, his one-handed stab kept the drive alive, one he fittingly finished off, when McNabb threw an absolute missile between Patriot defenders. For laughs, there was even the time in 2003 when Westbrook climbed the ladder and took a ball off face-guarding Zach Thomas’ shoulder. The person who underthrew him on the play? Freddie Mitchell.
In a career that mixed consistent production with highlight plays at The Linc or wherever the Eagles were playing, one place stands out amongst them all in my mind: The east goal line at Texas Stadium.
If you remember, the Eagles twice made headlines in the span of ten months there in 2007 and 2008. All told, this is a very short period of time for two major stories to break out at one stinking goal line in an opponent’s stadium, but the Eagles did it.
The one which probably comes to mind first, for so many reasons is the DeSean Jackson premature flip at the goal line on Monday Night Football in September 2008. There are a bunch of reasons for this. The nature of the play, the electric catch and talent to go with the obvious immaturity and stupidity was a Godsend for local and national talking heads. It was an early season game on national television, too. One thing the play didn’t have was an outcome on the game. The same can’t be said about the other one.
This play was the game. In December 2007, at the same goal line, Brian Westbrook made the play that we hardly ever see a running back make (Anyone catch the Super Bowl this year?). Up 10-6 and trying to preserve a lead, Westbrook made a couple of nice moves and had a clear path to the end zone, but he didn’t score. Just like Frank Costanza and Cosmo Kramer before him, Westbrook stopped short.
Why? Because the Eagles would be completely guaranteed the win if he didn’t score, that’s why. For me, the natural ability combined with the propensity to always make the right decision is what will always be most endearing about Brian Westbrook.
Making his career even more special, he clearly wasn’t thought of as a sure thing coming out of college. During his Villanova years, the only contact I had with Brian Westbrook was through Saturday night editions of SportsNite on CSN. That was the place where all of the local college football scores were posted (My favorite running gag, prompted by my uncle, was to guess how much the Cheyney had lost by that day. Let’s just the Wolves had a couple of rebuilding seasons).
For 1-AA schools like Nova, highlights accompanied the scores, and every week there was little #20, breaking off a huge run on the Main Line. But nobody knew how he would hold up in the pros.
The Eagles selected him in the third round, and he became the franchise’s all-time leader in yards from scrimmage. So, uh, good pick by Big Red there.
Westbrook had a habit of standing out as a football player at basketball school. Villanova, with its great hoops tradition, hasn’t produced a modern athlete who has come close to the professional career of Westbrook. In fact, depending on how the old-timers feel about Paul Arizin, Westbrook could be considered the greatest athlete ever from Nova. Also, there’s his high school, DeMatha, which along with St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, is known for being one of the two most storied high-school basketball programs in the country. And yet while both of the school’s most storied athletes played for legendary coach Morgan Wootten (Adrian Dantley is the other), one made his mark off the hardwood.
A funny thing happened during that press conference. When Westbrook was thanking former offensive line coach Juan Castillo, he smiled and added “who is now the defensive coordinator.” The smile wasn’t anything vicious or dismissive, coming off as a “times are a changing” realization. Deep down though, I’d like to think Westbrook, who saw the Eagles season from afar last season, got a kick out of the team’s state of turmoil last year. Now retired and with a long life ahead of him at the age of 32, Brian Westbrook wasn’t there to bail anyone out anymore.
LeSean McCoy was in the back of the room and the best running back in team history seemed to be telepathically, “It’s up to you, now.”
Brian Westbrook had clocked out.