Everything seems so different about Michael Westbrook this season.

The gifted wide receiver is playing the way the Washington Redskins always dreamed he would. The Redskins are a winning team, and Westbrook appears to be blossoming into one of their leaders. He's talking to the media and projecting a happy, confident public image.

But has Westbrook really changed, or does it just seem that way because the Redskins have better players around him and are finally winning?

"I'm the same person," he said following practice yesterday at Redskin Park. "I'm the same player I've always been. I'm talking to the media now, and I'm talking a little bit more to my teammates because they're talking to me. It's just different chemistry now. I'm the same old Michael Westbrook I've always been."

Virtually everyone in the organization has an opinion on the subject, and not everyone agrees with Westbrook's version. But the Redskins don't care; they just hope it continues.

They'll take a 2-1 record into Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers at Redskins Stadium, and Westbrook has been a major contributor to an offense that's ranked first in the NFL. He has 13 catches, two of them for touchdowns, and leads the NFC with 302 receiving yards. He and the Redskins' other starting wide receiver, Albert Connell, have been too much for defenses to handle thus far.

"Mike is playing at a high level right now, with the most confidence he's ever had," Coach Norv Turner said yesterday. "Michael played awfully well last year, aside from missing the four games with the injury. I think he's stepped it up another notch, and the confidence has a lot to do with that."

The Redskins saw both the good and the bad of Westbrook last season. When he played, he usually played well. He played 11 games and had single-season career highs of 44 catches for 736 yards and six touchdowns. But he also missed two games after Turner fined and benched him for missing a meeting and walk-through the day before a game, and his season was ended early by a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery.

The refrain was too familiar for Westbrook and the Redskins--flashes of brilliance, but also controversy and injury.

"I think he's played at this level the last two years," said Terry Robiskie, the team's passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. "Unfortunately, I think he started at this level and wasn't able to maintain it because of injuries or whatever. . . . The key is to do it every Sunday for 16 games."

Robiskie and Westbrook point to the addition of quarterback Brad Johnson as the key to Westbrook's perceived arrival.

"I think Brad has made all the difference in the world," Robiskie said. ". . . Mike's got a guy who's communicating with him and saying, 'I'm depending on you. I need you.' And they all know Brad will jump their butts in a minute. That's a big deal. When it's coming from inside your locker room and not just [from coaches in] the meeting room, that's a plus."

Westbrook said: "It's hard to be consistent when you don't have someone throwing the ball to you consistently. The media has always been saying, 'Westbrook needs to be consistent.' I'm trying to figure out what that means.

"What does that mean? Running routes? I'm running the same routes I've always run--not when I was a rookie, but the last three or four years. Dropped balls? I'll drop a ball. I'm human. But it's a rare thing. . . . Staying healthy? That's the luck of the draw."

During the offseason, he ended his ban on interviews that began following his attack on running back Stephen Davis during training camp in 1997. Westbrook said yesterday he's pleased with his decision to resume talking to reporters.

"It's working out," he said. "Everything around me is a lot calmer and easier. I took a lot of pressure off myself. Nobody knew who I was. Now people can see and hear me.

"I talked to the media before, and people had all these judgments. They had all these preconceived ideas of who I was. Even when I tried to explain myself, it was a losing battle. I just got tired of it and stopped talking. Now everything is changing for me for the better, and I'm just happy to see how I am now."

He discounted the notion that he is becoming a team leader, but said he's hopeful that his teammates admire the way he plays.

"If you want to follow somebody, look at what they do [on the field]," Westbrook said. "I bust my butt in practice. I bust my butt in the game. I want people to look at that and say, 'That's how I want to be.' "

This is what the Redskins expected from Westbrook, 27, when they made him the fourth player picked in the 1995 college draft. It has taken four seasons of frustrations and heartache to get to this point, but now Robiskie and Turner are praising the maturity being demonstrated by Westbrook.

"He's really working hard at it," Turner said. "His maturity level is real high right now. I think he's going to continue doing this throughout 16 games and have a heck of a year."