Monday, March 1, 2010

The Handling of Brian Westbrook Exposed the Philadelphia Eagles' Fatal Flaw

Philadelphia Eagles Minicamp

As more information has emerged since Andy Reid announced the release of Brian Westbrook on Wednesday afternoon, it seems clear that once again the Philadelphia Eagles have exposed their one fatal flaw. For all the good they have done in turning around a checkered organization and making it one of the NFL's elite, they still don't get it when it comes to the finesse of combining art with science.

Jeffrey Lurie has done a remarkable job since acquiring the organization in 1994. After suffering through the Ray Rhodes era along with a plethora of third rate quarterbacks, the additions of Reid and Donovan McNabb jump started an unprecedented period of prosperity in the new millennium.

During that time the Eagles have accumulated a spectacular 103-56-1 record. They have made five trips to the NFC Championship Game and two Super Bowl appearances. Although much to the frustration of Eagles fans fueled by five decades of futility, they have not yet won the big game. Nevertheless, those are truly remarkable accomplishments by both organizational and NFL standards.

Lurie and his lieutenants have set their goals high, installed winning philosophies, and instilled a winning attitude. By most every account, they have excelled in the science of a running an NFL franchise.

That being said, their handling of the Brian Westbrook situation once again highlights how severely lacking they are in the "art" of it all.

Simply because Reid stamps a smiley face on the matter and spins the announcement with a smattering of politically correct, flattering praise— doesn't make it right. The corporate speak and word massage resembling that of a politico spin doctor subtly shifted focus away from perhaps the one flaw that keeps the team from attaining the ultimate goal of winning a "Lombardi Trophy."

By all appearances, Lurie looks to be an owner and a man grounded in human emotion and empathy. A patriarch with a heart.

Ironically, he does not run his organization that way. Instead, he appears to be devoid of any understanding of the human side of his players, the intangibles of team chemistry, and the emotional and spiritual connection of his fanbase.

After being drafted in 2001 out of hometown Villanova University, figuratively situated within the shadows of Lincoln Financial Field, Westbrook has been a large part of the team's success over the past decade. The explosive multi-dimensional running back is universally acknowledged as one of the Eagles' all-time great players.

Westbrook has also been a class act and a fan favorite. A quick glance around "The Linc" any given Sunday over the past several years provided testimony to his popularity as the stands were abundantly littered with No. 36 jerseys bearing his name.

And surely, the high regard and popularity were well earned amongst fans. Like his sports cousin Ryan Howard across the street, Westbrook was a long ball threat on every play and a "Sports Center" highlight waiting to happen. Additionally, the diminutive running back played hard, played through injury, evolved as a leader, and maintained a humble demeanor despite his success.

When it came time to make such an important decision about and take action regarding one of the organization's truly special players— the Eagles brass bungled it up again.

Most everybody gets the economics of the situation that injuries had somewhat diminished the running back's skills and that the risk side of the equation had elevated, especially after a couple episodes of head trauma this season. A $7.25 million salary in 2010 for a player who was no longer projected capable of being the featured back any longer—and even worse, may have spent more time in the training room than on the field—was not going to work.

Still— the Eagles missed the mark here in so many ways. The decision making process, the interactions with Westbrook and his agent, the divorce proceedings, and arguably the ultimate decision — all appear to have been terribly wrong.

In an article by Bob Cunningham entitled "Eagles Don't Believe Westbrook Has Anything Left", he detailed commentary made by the player on ESPN Radio the other day. Westbrook divulged how Reid simply called to inform him that he was being released.

He also indicated that the team never approached him about restructuring his contract and giving him a chance to return. Westbrook's comments clearly suggested that he recognized the value equation and was willing to take a pay cut in order to stay in Philly.

The combination of his contributions and accumulated stature within the Eagles organization, respect and esteem amongst his teammates, and the connection with fans' hearts warranted a radically different approach. Westbrook wasn't some journeyman pick-up or a second year free agent off the practice squad, he was a part of the team's historical fabric.

Why wouldn't the team even explore the possibilities? Surely, there was a win-win scenario for both sides that would have struck a balance between cost, risk, and contribution. And, surely Westbrook's appeal amongst the fanbase and leadership role within the team would have warranted bringing him back until it was clear to everyone either due to performance and/or health, retirement was his best option.

The running back's midnight green swan song was one play in an otherwise dreadful Wild Card meltdown in Dallas. In his only "touch" of the game, he grabbed a screen pass and weaved his way to a 27-yard gain.

Besides being a rare positive play for the Eagles offense on that day, Westbrook appeared to demonstrate that he still had some of the 2007 vintage player left in him. Almost assuredly another team will sign him to serve in a specialty back role next season. It begs to ask the question, "Why not in Philly?"

Westbrook, the fans and his teammates all deserved to be treated much better. The player deserved much more consideration and greater fanfare.

The loyal supporters of the team deserved an opportunity to keep one of their most beloved players as well as experience the improved team chemistry that comes about when organization's embrace and respect their tenured high performers.

And, the remaining Eagles players deserved to be left with more than the empty feeling that the leaders of the organization only value them as long as they are healthy and they are nothing more than a number regardless of their contributions.

The matter-of-fact way that the news was conveyed to Westbrook, and then to the football world, is somewhat shameful. The owner and the coach throwing in a couple references to Westbrook always being an Eagle in their hearts and that he was one of their favorites did not come close to compensate for their flat, dispassionate delivery of the news.

Just one year earlier, the Eagles made a similar decision to allow another all-time great and team leader to test free agency. Like the current situation, the team appeared to make no bona fide attempt to keep Brian Dawkins and instead let him quickly sign-on with Denver.

After having a clear void left behind in terms of leadership and skill, while Dawkins proved he had a lot left in the tank, you would think that the Eagles would have learned a valuable lesson. Instead, they shockingly handled the Westbrook situation with even more distance and disregard.

Its time that Lurie, Reid and Joe Banner, who is rightly or wrongly the team's symbol of corporate arrogance, take a hard look in the mirror. What they might find is the missing piece to the puzzle—and it starts with them.

Overall, the Eagles organization's detached relationship with its players continues to be its fatal flaw. By now, it is clear to players that loyalty runs one way and it is all just a business. They also know that the NFL warriors who put team over self are more likely to be unceremoniously discarded than rewarded.

Accordingly, there is a very good chance that this design flaw is what separates them from the ultimate mark of success. Augmenting the team's etched-in-stone science with the subtle art of building morale and team chemistry would go a long way towards bringing home a Lombardi Trophy.

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