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Westbrook ready to take next step

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Brian Westbrook has overcome stereotypes throughout his career.

Undersized. Injury-prone. Third-down back.

With every carry and each catch during his first five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Westbrook has proved he's one of the most versatile running backs in the NFL.

But that label isn't enough. He hopes to be mentioned among the elite players at his position.

"I want to be one of the best running backs in the game," said Westbrook, who was excused from training camp on Wednesday for personal reasons.

Westbrook, who turns 28 next month, is coming off his best season. He surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the first time, finishing at 1,217. His average of 5.1 yards per carry was a franchise-record and he ran for seven touchdowns. Westbrook also had a career-high 77 catches for 699 yards and four TDs. No other back averaged more yards per touch (6.0) or per catch (9.1) last year.

For Westbrook, it was vindication. He often said he can be a workhorse-type back who carries the ball 20-25 times per game. But coach Andy Reid's offensive philosophy always had been pass-first. Once quarterback Donovan McNabb went down with a season-ending knee injury, Reid sought a more-balanced approach centered around Westbrook.

And Westbrook delivered. He ran for over 100 yards four times in seven games without McNabb, including twice in the playoffs and excluding a meaningless regular-season finale.

Westbrook also stepped up as a team leader, helping fill McNabb's void in the locker room and in the huddle.

"If there was one part of his game that went to the next level, it was the leadership part of it," Reid said. "He wasn't afraid to speak up and it was all positive. He knew when to get on the guys. He knew when to pat them on the back. I thought he did a heck of job with that."

Safety Brian Dawkins, one of the most vocal players on defense, noticed Westbrook took on a different role.

"He doesn't speak a lot. He doesn't use words just to use words and talk all the time," Dawkins said. "So, when he says something, it's something that needs to be heard."

With McNabb returning, Westbrook's workload could decrease slightly. Tony Hunt, a third-round pick, also could take some of the goal-line or short-yardage carries.

Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg want to maintain a balanced attack, though a healthy McNabb and a deep receiving corps could alter those plans.

"I know how much success we had last year when we did run the ball more," Westbrook said. "As long as we win the games, I would definitely be happy with that. I'm not a selfish guy like that, but as an individual, you want to run the ball."

Since he was selected out of Villanova in the third round of the 2002 draft, Westbrook has dealt with criticism. At 5-foot-8 and 203 pounds, he was considered too small to handle the rigors of playing every down. He still hasn't played a full season, but he answered questions about his durability down the stretch last year.

Westbrook had a breakout season in 2004, when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl. He finished with 812 yards rushing, 73 catches for 703 yards and nine TDs in 13 games on his way to the Pro Bowl.

"I would love to see what my numbers would look like if I carried the ball for 20 times a game for 16 games," he said. "But I love the way the coaches use me. I would love to run the ball more, but he's using me so I feel fresh toward the end of the season. It's hard to compare the things that you do here, the running back, to other teams that are going to run the ball 25-30 times a game. You just can't compare those numbers. But I'm able to get the ball out of the backfield and do other things that I excel at. And I appreciate that, as well."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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