The Philadelphia eagles' offensive linemen were studying game film in early November when line coach Juan Castillo harmlessly noted that second-year running back Brian Westbrook resembled a rabbit as he scampered all over the field. But in a cramped meeting room filled with wise guys, the comment served as inspiration and spawned a nickname. The linemen took to calling Westbrook B-Rabbit, and he chuckles every time he hears it.
Philly's opponents, on the other hand, aren't laughing, because the 5'8", 200-pound Westbrook is becoming one of the most dangerous all-purpose threats in the NFL. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys. Though Westbrook had a total of only 71 rushing and receiving yards on Sunday, he delivered one of the key first-half plays in the Eagles' 36-10 victory over the Cowboys. The game was tied at three with less than four minutes remaining in the second quarter when Westbrook caught a swing pass, broke three arm tackles and raced 16 yards into the end zone.
"We knew Westbrook was a good back, but we still couldn't stop him when we had to," Dallas linebacker Dexter Coakley said after the Eagles (10-3) had clinched a playoff spot for a fourth consecutive season, tying a club record. The Cowboys aren't alone in their futility; Westbrook leads the Eagles in touchdowns (10) and rushing yards (511), and his 11.9-yard punt-return average ranks third in the NFC. More important, he's been reliable in the clutch, helping to take some of the playmaking pressure off quarterback Donovan McNabb. West-brook's 62-yard scoring run sealed a 23-12 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 28, and his closing-minutes, 84-yard punt return for a touchdown gave Philadelphia a 14-10 win over the New York Giants on Oct. 19.
"Donovan can't do everything by himself," says Westbrook, a third-round draft pick out of Villanova. "If he doesn't feel like he has to save the day every game, his job gets a lot easier."
Westbrook takes great pride in proving wrong the many pro scouts who were skeptical of his NFL potential because of his size and Division I-AA college background (though he did set a I-AA record with 9,885 career all-purpose yards). After playing sparingly as a rookie in 2002, he impressed Eagles coaches at training camp last summer with his quickness, sure hands and grasp of the offense. It helped that Duce Staley, Philadelphia's leading rusher among running backs for the past five seasons, was holding out, increasing Westbrook's practice repetitions. With Staley back in the fold and third-year back Correll Buckhalter in the mix, coach Andy Reid uses a three-back rotation.
"The big thing Brian has brought to the offense is the speed to get to the corner," says right tackle Jon Runyan. "We didn't have that before, and we might have been hesitant to even call [outside running] plays because we needed the perfect situation for one to work. Now we don't have to get the perfect block to break a big run."
All three backs are close friends who often hang out together after practice. They complement one another and fill specific roles in the offense: Staley is the tough inside runner, Buck-halter is the slasher, and Westbrook is B-Rabbit. "Whenever we need a big play," says left tackle Tra Thomas, "he's the guy we go to."