Before I go any further, let me say that I am sure there are undoubtedly going to be some old-time Eagles fans who may vehemently disagree with my selection of Brian Westbrook as the greatest running back in Philadelphia Eagles history, but guess what? I’m not perturbed, nor will I be swayed in my decision to name Westbrook as the greatest running back in Eagles history. Besides, it’s not like the Eagles have had a slew of great runners in their enigmatic history. Only two other runners even come close to the greatness Westbrook is currently displaying on a weekly basis, and we all know who they are don’t we?
That’s right – the legendary Hall of Famer, Steve Van Buren and the equally elusive, Wilbert Montgomery. However, I am unequivocally entrenched in my belief that Westbrook has already equaled the immense success of both of those players and is now working on firmly establishing himself as the greatest running back in Eagles history.
Let’s look at the careers of all three runners, before I get into the reasons I think Westbrook has already surpassed both as the best Philly rusher of all-time.
Steve Van Buren
Van Buren’s legacy is undoubtedly set forever, but just because he’s in the Hall of Fame, does that make him a better back than Westbrook? I’m sure a lot of people will say yes (followed by some four-letter expletive) but I’m not so sure. Looking at Van Buren’s career statistics, the first thing that stuck out for me was his 4.4-yard per carry career average and 69 career touchdowns.
Van Buren obviously played in an era where there weren’t as many teams and the schedule wasn’t nearly as grueling as it is today. However, he did play in an era when defensive players were allowed to do a lot of things to opposing offensive players that would be considered almost criminal in today’s NFL.
No doubt, Van Buren was an exceptional football player. He surpassed 1,000 yards rushing twice, won four NFL rushing titles and a rare “triple crown” in 1945 when he led in rushing, scoring, and kickoff returns and he was also a first-team All-NFL selection each of his first six seasons.
Van Buren was also one of the key components in the Eagles two championship-winning teams in 1948 and 1949. As a matter of fact, in the 1949 title game against the Los Angeles Rams, Van Buren rushed 31 times for a record 196 yards as the Eagles won 14-0. After suffering a knee injury before the 1952 season, Van Buren retired as league’s record holder for rushing yards (5860) and rushing touchdowns (69).
I really hate to say that Westbrook is a better running back than Wilbert Montgomery, a player I watched endlessly during my adolescent years growing up in Philadelphia, but I have to call it like I see it.
Montgomery was drafted in the sixth-round by the Eagles in 1977 and played eight seasons with the Birds shattering nearly every Eagles rushing records and leading the club in rushing six times.
Montgomery, who ended his NFL career with the Detroit Lions in 1985, holds seven Philadelphia rushing records, including career attempts (1,465), rushing yards (6,538), attempts in a season (338 in 1979), most rushing yards in a season (1,512 in 1979), career 100-yard rushing games (26), most 100-yard rushing games in a season (8 in 1981), and most touchdowns in a game (4).
In 1979, Montgomery led the NFL with 2,012 all-purpose yards (rushing, receiving, returns) and concluded his NFL career with 6,789 yards rushing, 2,502 receiving, 814 kickoff return yards, 57 touchdowns (45 rushing, 12 receiving, 1 kickoff return), and two Pro Bowl invitations (1978-79).
Statistics aside, Montgomery is clearly one of the Eagles top two or three running backs of all-time and were it not for his lack of longevity, would have gone down as one of the greatest rushers of all-time.
Now, let me get to the reasons why I think Westbrook is the best running back in Philadelphia Eagles history. First of all, neither Van Buren nor Montgomery played in an era where they had to face 250-300-pound defensive linemen and linebackers who can literally run almost as fast as halfbacks.
Having said that, I also fully believe that Westbrook is the most versatile of all three players and is even more elusive than the slippery Montgomery was. To be honest about it, Westbrook can score from anywhere on the field any time he has the ball.
Now, I’ll be honest and admit that his rushing statistics may never match either Van Buren’s or Montgomery’s (although I suspect he will surpass both before he’s done) but that fact has more to do with head coach Andy Reid’s idiotic lack of run-calls than anything else.
Westbrook is a modern day Marshall Faulk, a player that is equally dangerous running the ball or catching it, either out of the backfield or split out wide. Statistically speaking, Westbrook also matches up very well with both of his predecessors, although Reid doesn’t utilize his immense talents nearly enough. Westbrook’s career 4.7-yards per carry average is Hall of Fame worthy although his less than 10 carries per game average makes Reid look extremely foolish.
The bottom line is this – if Westbrook were utilized more, especially as a runner, I believe that, not only would the Eagles be a better team, but Westbrook’s personal statistics would dwarf both, Van Buren’s and Montgomery’s at some point in his career.
Maybe this column naming Westbrook as the greatest running back in Eagles history is a bit premature, but I have seen exactly what Westbrook is capable of even if his head coach wants to throw games away by not utilizing Westbrook in the fourth quarter of games his team is leading by not running the ball right down the throats of overwhelmed opponents.
Either way, Westbrook is going to go down as one of the greatest runners in Eagles history – and I say, the greatest ever.