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Eagles suddenly find season slipping away

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Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Brian Westbrook's status will profoundly impact the Eagles' chances in the NFC East race.


Eagles wide receiver Reggie Brown doesn't think the team's back-to-back losses or 2-3 record are reasons to despair right now.

"Pressure busts pipes," he said, following his team's most recent loss, to visiting NFC East rival, Washington.

The eclectic Brown's advice: Take a deep breath.

That would seem a fairly sensible approach this early in the season, especially for a team as experienced and talented as the Eagles, if not for the latest development.

All-everything running back Brian Westbrook suffered two broken ribs against the Redskins and is iffy -- no official injury reports have to be filed until Wednesday -- for Sunday's game at no-longer-a-pushover San Francisco.

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Taking a deep breath isn't an easy thing for Westbrook. And if he can't breathe easy, neither can the Eagles. You don't rehab ribs. They have to heal. Time is the only real remedy.

Westbrook and the medical staff have to decide if he should play and then use the pending bye week to recuperate, risking further harm in the process. He could take the next two weeks to let his tenderized midsection (and strained ankle) re-generate so he's fully ready for the important push over the final nine weeks.

After, if Philadelphia can't hold his own against the 49ers without Westbrook, maybe they're not quite as good as they think they are. Then again, maybe that's the issue.

"We have guys that can make plays on the team," quarterback Donovan McNabb said. "We have to give those guys opportunities to make plays."

McNabb wasn't specific who those "guys" were but things could and maybe shout start and end with him. Him, not Westbrook, has been the guy who kept teams off balance for years and even though he has a bruised chest, he's dazzled while dinged many times before. To help, he's got rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tight end L.J. Smith, backup tailback Correll Buckhalter, Brown and others at his disposal.

Yet something's just not right without a fully healthy Westbrook.

Brown said the Eagles' personnel can beat opposing personnel without gadgetry. Regular old plays would work. They haven't, consistently. McNabb said a lack of execution is the problem. Not having standout guard Shawn Andrews (back) seems to factor into the question.

Coach Andy Reid accepted the blame for all the shortcomings, which is what coaches do when they are sometimes sincere and when they sometimes want to show players that he's got their backs.

While Eagles players and coaches accept culpability for the recent string of failure and downplay the effect Westbrook's injuries, his potential absence and/or his limited effectiveness; outside of most starting quarterbacks, no player may be more valuable to his team than the multi-faceted running back.

When he's out, Philadelphia loses most of the time. When he's healthy, the Eagles' offense tends to run and pass with precision and relentlessness.

Of the Eagles' 14 touchdowns, Westbrook, an All-Pro last season after totaling 2,104 total yards, has six, four rushing. He is tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns -- and he didn't play in the better part of two games.

Flashback to Sunday against Washington: Philadelphia opened the game with a 12-play, 80-yard drive, capped by Westbrook, fighting through a sore ankle, barreling up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown. Westbrook had 22 rushing yards and 17 receiving yards on the drive.

More than that, Washington had to keep linebackers and defensive backs locked in on Westbrook at all times because he's just as prone to get open out of the backfield for a pass than he is to snap off a 5-yard run on a handoff. That left tight end L.J. Smith in favorable man-to-man matchups with linebackers, which the Eagles exploited. Brown and wide receiver DeSean Jackson were used in the passing and running games on that drive.

Tom Mihalek / Associated Press
More pressure will fall on Donovan McNabb to make plays if Brian Westbrook isn't able to play.

After a 2-yard run on the Eagles' next possession, Westbrook came off the field and eventually was led into the locker room, where his damaged ribs were examined and he admittedly took a pain-numbing shot. One should have been administered to the offense as well because from that point, the Eagles were hurting.

Though Westbrook came back, he wasn't himself and the Redskins knew it. Eventually, more attention seemingly was paid to McNabb and his receivers. Jackson didn't have another reception after the opening drive. Smith had one. McNabb insinuated the lack of action for some of his supporting case had nothing to do with the Redskins' adjustment but the Eagles' lack thereof.

He offered an emphatic "no" after the game when asked if the Redskins changed coverages to limit Smith after the opening drive. There also was the limited use of Buckhalter, who filled in so admirably for Westbrook in a loss to Chicago (16 carries, 66 yards; 2 receptions, 24 yards), only touched the ball twice. That Philadelphia showed it would rather go with a wounded Westbrook than a healthy Buckhalter proves how important Westbrook is.

"If I had answer I would definitely know what's going on," McNabb said. "It is going to be a week in which you've got to look at yourself and not look at anybody else. Sometimes you have to go through that process. It's better that you go through it not but there's no reason for us to be going through that right now."

The Eagles opened the season scoring 38 and 37 points, respectively, against the Rams and Cowboys. In the three games since, they've combined for 52 points. Keep in mind, those games were against Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, no slouches on the defensive side of the ball. Yet things began to stall when Westbrook (291 total yards) strained his ankle in the second quarter of the Eagles' Week 3 victory over the Steelers. The injury kept him from playing in Philadelphia's 24-20 loss to Chicago. His ribs, more than his ankle, seemed to be what bothered him against the Redskins, who limited him to 45 yards after Philly's opening possession.

The evidence with and without Westbrook speaks for itself. Does it warrant him playing with broken ribs against the 49ers to possibly pull to .500, though? Philly has lost two straight and a three-game skid is nothing to take lightly in the NFC East, where Philadelphia comfortably sits in the cellar behind the Giants, Cowboys and Redskins.

The Eagles are in need of resuscitation, regardless of Westbrook's status this weekend. If it can't work its way through things soon, that next deep breath could be coming with the aid of a respirator.

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