The Washington Redskins say Michael Westbrook is having the best training camp of his career. They say he's in the shape of his life and his work in practice has been what they always have wanted from him.
Do they dare to hope this will be the year Westbrook becomes the consistently dominant wide receiver they thought they were getting with the fourth pick in the 1995 draft?
They don't have any choice.
"You've got to line up and plan on it being there," Coach Norv Turner said today. "Mike has put games together. He played well for 11 or 12 games last year until he got hurt. If Mike can stay injury-free, I think he'll put together 16 games and be a very good player."
For four seasons, the Redskins have seen glimpses of what made them believe Westbrook would be terrific: bursts of speed, shows of strength, a terrific catch here, a superb game there.
But every time Westbrook seemed headed toward becoming a Pro Bowl player, there has been an injury or an indiscretion. He attacked teammate Stephen Davis on the practice field. He got a costly penalty during a key game for removing his helmet during a tantrum. He angered coaches and alienated some of his teammates. So, for now, Westbrook's performance in training camp is generating tempered optimism.
"He's going good," said Terry Robiskie, the Redskins' passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. "You hope this is the year. I thought last year would be his year to come into his own, but he got hurt. This year, as opposed to in the past, he's been able to string together a bunch of good practices in a row."
But Robiskie added: "Until a guy can go out and do it for 16 weeks instead of Week 1, Week 5 and Week 8, you can't say he's there. That's the test by which all players are measured."
Even Westbrook isn't making any bold predictions, although he likes his chances of having a breakthrough season.
"We'll have to wait till the season," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen. If I had to put a percentage to it, I'd have to say the odds are in my favor."
Last season, he established career highs with 44 catches for 736 yards and six touchdowns. He had seven receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns at Seattle in Week 3, and 10 catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona in Week 11.
Still, the Redskins couldn't come away from last season with entirely positive feelings about Westbrook. Turner fined him and benched him for two games for missing a team meeting and walk-through the day before a game. Robiskie loudly admonished him for his behavior during a team meeting a few weeks later. And he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 13 when his head was rammed to the turf on a tackle by San Diego Chargers cornerback Charles Dimry. Westbrook suffered a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery and initially caused fear that his career was in jeopardy.
But Westbrook's recovery has gone smoothly. And in a training camp full of positives for the Redskins, his play and demeanor have been among the most encouraging developments. He says he stopped worrying about his neck injury long ago. The Redskins have moved him to flanker in an attempt to avoid double-teaming defenses, and he appears to have developed a rapport with new quarterback Brad Johnson.
"Mike has had his most consistent camp," Turner said. "He's in the best condition he's ever been in. When you're in good condition, it's easier to maintain things over time. With the move to flanker, I think there will be more opportunities for us to get him the ball."
Said Westbrook: "I'm having fun. That's what it's all about. We have a lot of new faces. You can't help but have a new feeling. . . . Brad is blending in well. He's mixing in well with everybody. We'll see. It seems like the chemistry is there, but we won't be able to tell for sure until the season."
The Redskins know a new quarterback doesn't feel completely comfortable with his receivers overnight. But they hope the Johnson-Westbrook connection is well on its way to being productive.
"I see some nice things," Robiskie said. "I see spurts. I see potential. When it will click in, I don't know."
The Redskins believe they have some of the foundation of a solid passing game in place. They love Johnson's touch and leadership. They think they have a fullback, Larry Centers, and a tight end, Stephen Alexander, who will be reliable receivers.
But they need the final pieces -- an offensive line that can protect Johnson, and a wide receiver who scares defenses and makes big plays every week. Team officials talk about the talents of Westbrook and Albert Connell, the club's other starting wide receiver, but they also are searching for a top-notch wide receiver they can acquire in a trade. However, they must prepare for the season as if there won't be any additions.
"I believe this group of receivers can play in the NFL . . . and can play extremely well," Robiskie said. "But there's a certain level of immaturity in the group. They're young. They don't have a lot of experience. If at any given time they fail to focus, we're going to get whipped. That's the challenge for me."