Yes, the Eagles do not have a number one wide receiver. It's obvious, it's sad, and no one is more guilty of lamenting that sad fact than myself. It's not something that's going to be fixed in the next two days, so now we have to move on. We have to turn our attention from coming up with scenarios which will land Anquan Boldin or Chad Johnson in Philly to packages, plays and schemes that will turn our lack of a number one receiver into an afterthought. It is not only possible, but doable with the cast of characters we have at the skill positions and after the jump we're going to talk about where everything this team does begins and ends, with this man.
I've talked to a few Eagles fans, and a few Eagles haters over the past couple of weeks and from just about everyone the first thing I hear is how Westbrook is going to get killed this season. The prevailing logic seems to be that teams will stack the box and stifle the Eagles' running game because the Eagles don't have a single threat on the outside to keep teams honest.
You know what, that's a fair statement, and it would probably have me more worried than it does if Andy Reid was the type of coach who would lineup with two tight ends, an I formation and try to pound the ball down the opposing team's throat 30 times a game. I'm not worried because he's not that type of coach, and this isn't that type of team. Sure, it'd be nice, and a lot of the time preferable, if Andy would balance out his play calling a little bit, but odds are, it's not going to happen. Teams can, and will, key on Westbrook. The difference between keying on #36 and keying on a lot of the other backs in the NFL is that crowding the box with an extra safety probably isn't your best bet.
If you really want to effectively neutralize Westbrook, it's probably going to require having an extra corner on the field. This is something I've touched on before, but let me expand on the thought now. The Eagles strength in the passing game won't come from the outside, it can't. Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett don't scare anyone, nor should they. The Eagles will do the most damage on the inside with L.J. Smith, DeSean Jackson, Tony Hunt and Brian Westbrook. Each one of those guys can beat their man if the other teams uses a traditional coverage scheme. Smith is too quick for most linebackers, too big for most safeties. Jackson should be too much for most teams' number 3 corner to handle. No linebacker in the league can stick with Westbrook, and Hunt is not your average fullback, who is usually accounted for by a middle linebacker in coverage. That's four potential mismatches.
So, if we want to take an optimistic view of this team's personnel, how about this? The conventional wisdom dictates that a true #1 receiver is needed to keep teams honest, to keep them from sneaking up on the line and shutting down the run. A great receiver can turn an average running back into a good running back by giving him more room to work. Well, in the Eagles' case, a great running back can turn an average receiver into a good receiver. Linebackers can't stick with Westbrook in coverage, everyone knows this. Whenever he gets involved in the passing game, which happens quite often, someone from the defensive backfield is going to have to account for him. That means one less safety or corner to check the guys on the outside. Not a lot of backs in this league demand that kind of attention. Of course, this is only the beginning of Westbrook's contributions to the passing game.
Beyond what he does for the other skill position guys out there, he's also one of the most explosive weapons in the league. Every time he touches the ball in space, he could break it for a TD. It's not just his open-field moves, but his strength as well. Not too many corners will take him on one-on-one and come out the victor. He has the versatility to run a go down the sidelines or find the hole in a zone and turn a sack into a big gainer for McNabb. But wait, there's more.
On the rare occasion when the Eagles call a passing play which doesn't involve Westbrook, he still does two things to make the other guys better. Play action is the obvious one, and he's no better or worse than anyone else in that aspect. The fact that he's a deadly runner helps freeze safeties and make LBs commit. The area where he really shines is in pass protection. He's one of, if not the best RB in the game at picking up blitzers (and usually depositing them on their asses). He helps McNabb get the extra time he needs to find the open receiver.
Finally, there's the running game. As far as it goes with the Eagles, it begins and ends with #36. He'll probably get anywhere from 15-25 carries per game, and could very well wind up with close to 1500 yards if he stays healthy, he's that good. He's got the toughness and strength to run on the inside, the speed and quickness to get to the edge. We all know this.
The area of the running game I want to talk about is a new wrinkle. With Tony Hunt as their fullback, the Eagles now have two guys who can run the ball a little bit in their backfield, as opposed to Westbrook and a blocking back. How can this help them? Well, I can think of one way in particular. Say the Eagles come out with a two-back formation. If Westbrook goes in motion and splits out, what adjustments will the defense be forced to make? That's right, all the attention follows Westbrook. Either a safety, corner or LB is going to shift out there, maybe two. This opens up the middle of the field and leaves much more space for Hunt to work, should the Eagles decide to run the ball. It's the same benefit as having a #1 receiver on the outside. I'm not sure if the Eagles will use this package/play, but I'd love to see it.
So, on the eve, of the eve, of the eve of the season opener against the Rams, now is not the time to lament the lack of a number one receiver. We've had plenty of time to dwell on that, and we'll have plenty more over the next 6 months. Now is the time to sit back and watch the most-dynamic back in the NFC do his thing. This team will only go as far as Westbrook can carry them, and I'm betting that'll be pretty far this year.
Oh, and yes, I realize that for the most part, all of these things were true last year for the Eagles, and they still missed the playoffs. I'm just in a positive frame of mind heading into the season and I'm hoping DeSean Jackson and a fully-healthy McNabb coupled with a little more creativity in the offensive play calling will equal more success.