Michael Westbrook has never followed football closely, so he didn't mind admitting he knew little about the new intern working with wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie as the Washington Redskins held their first practice of training camp this afternoon.
From 1982 to '84, when he lined up as the ideal complement to wide receiver Art Monk, Redskins fans called him "Downtown" Charlie Brown or "Touchdown" Charlie Brown for his penchant for ripping off big plays bound for the end zone. Now offensive coordinator at Mississippi Valley State, Brown, 40, is serving as a coaching intern with his former team during camp.
After a morning working with Westbrook and the handful of other receivers, Brown joined the ranks of those who see the potential in Westbrook's game rather than the disappointment.
"When he's healthy, he's just as good as anybody else in the league," Brown said. "I just know the kid has a lot of skills. He's a good kid. And I think he's going to have a great year if he can stay healthy."
They are sharp contrasts: Brown, the eighth-round draft pick from South Carolina State, just 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, who became a surprisingly productive receiver; and Westbrook, the 6-3, 220-pound, first-round pick from Colorado, who has yet to play a full season in four years because of persistent knee and other injuries.
Brown caught a six-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to guarantee the Redskins' 1983 Super Bowl victory over the Miami Dolphins. Westbrook has never been to the playoffs.
But Westbrook is approaching the 1999 season, his fifth with the Redskins, with a new attitude. He said yesterday that he wants to be a leader on the team. He also wants to make the Pro Bowl this season.
His 1998 season was cut short by a herniated disk in his neck. He was on pace to have his best season, but even Westbrook admits he wasn't playing well enough (injury aside) to generate Pro Bowl-caliber stats. He feels he can play better.
"My priority goal, of course, is to catch everything that is thrown to me, and win games and help this team win games," Westbrook said. "If I do that, I think that Pro Bowl will come."
Coaches have shifted Westbrook to the opposite side of the field this year. In his new role as the flanker or "Z" receiver, he should get more of the big plays that went Leslie Shepherd's way last season. Westbrook also will be expected to play a bigger role as a blocker on running plays, Robiskie said. He hadn't been asked to do much of that in his early years because Henry Ellard was such a solid blocker.
This afternoon, as the Redskins went through their first full-contact practice of camp, Westbrook was among the most impressive players on the field, sloughing off safety Jamel Williams and cornerback Champ Bailey to reel in one reception and tumbling end over end to preserve another.
Robiskie said that to look at Westbrook, he would never know he had undergone neck surgery in January. There was no hesitation; nothing tentative about his grabs. "But again, nobody's picked him up and thrown him on the ground, either," Robiskie added, perhaps mindful of the times Redskins coaches and fans have been poised for Westbrook's breakthrough season only to have it cut short by injury.
It was the first full practice that quarterback Brad Johnson and Westbrook have had together. By the time doctors okayed Westbrook's return to contact during the offseason camps, Johnson had undergone knee surgery. With the season opener six weeks away, it's obviously critical that the two mesh quickly and effectively.
Of the two, Westbrook looked farther along in his recovery.
Johnson appeared to be favoring his knee, which was supported by a bandage, in both practices. But afterward he insisted he hadn't.
"I'm just kind of goofy," Johnson said, "but I felt like I moved pretty well. . . . I think people are putting thoughts and ideas into their own minds. I've got coaches, I've got trainers watching me. I took every rep today in practice I was scheduled to. They're not trying to hold me back by any means."
In the morning practice (without pads), the work was shared by all four quarterbacks: Johnson, Rodney Peete, Casey Weldon and John Paci. Johnson shouldered more of the load in the afternoon.
Johnson and Westbrook seemed to click well together. There are matters of timing yet to be worked out, Johnson said. But he seemed optimistic about the pairing.
"Michael is quite an athlete," Johnson said. "I didn't realize how good he was. I feel like we've been practicing together for a long time. He's extremely talented, he's very fast, very physical, and I really didn't realize this until this day or so."