Michael Westbrook, like the Washington Redskins, has underachieved these past four years in the NFL. Blessed with remarkable physical gifts, he has toyed with fans' hopes so much, many find it hard to believe the wide receiver finally has arrived.

Through eight games this season, Westbrook has 36 receptions for 662 yards. His average gain per catch, 18.4 yards, ranks second in the NFC. And he has made some spectacular plays, unleashing his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame to stiff-arm defenders, reel in receptions and block for running back Stephen Davis, whose 12 touchdowns lead the NFL.

Reliability at wide receiver was among the team's major concerns entering the season, and owner Daniel M. Snyder did not hide his anxiety, pursuing the Seattle Seahawks' Joey Galloway, while other team officials inquired about the Green Bay Packers' Antonio Freeman and the Arizona Cardinals' Rob Moore.

But Westbrook and third-year player Albert Connell have become key ingredients in Washington's 5-3 record and share of first place in the NFC East entering today's game against the Eagles in Philadelphia. And the Redskins' passing game, ranked fourth in the NFL, has fed directly into the success of the running game.

The images are as arresting as they are ironic: Westbrook making a block that springs Davis for a score; Westbrook and Davis high-fiving in the end zone after the wide receiver nabs a touchdown pass. Less than three years ago, Westbrook was videotaped punching the burly running back during a fight in training camp.

But this is a new Redskins team, with a new chemistry, players say. And this, apparently, is a new Westbrook.

Realizing His Potential

"He's nowhere near the type of player he used to be in a negative way," passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie said. "He used to blow assignments. He used to be undisciplined on some of his routes. That hasn't been a problem for him this year. He's much more disciplined. He's much more focused."

Halfway through the 1999 campaign, Westbrook, 27, is brimming with confidence.

"Right now, I'm at the top of my game, in my opinion, and I don't think there's anybody better," Westbrook said. "There might be one or two guys out there that are better or as good. But it'll be hard to find."

Coach Norv Turner, who has not wavered on Westbrook's potential since draft day five years ago, still wants to see more.

"There are a lot of guys in this league that step up and have a run and play at a high level for a short period of time," Turner said. "The real test for Mike--for any guy that wants to be considered in that upper echelon--is to do it for a full season, and then to do it for two full seasons. Pretty soon, you've done it for five full seasons. With the great ones, that's what you see: You see that great consistency over a long haul. And Mike is capable of doing that."

Westbrook has yet to play more than 13 games in an NFL season. He has yet to have an injury-free season, a Pro Bowl season or to catch more than 44 passes in a season.

But that was then. And several factors have contributed to his apparent turnaround.

Turner said Westbrook is more mature, sobered by a neck injury last season and subsequent surgery, that made him realize football "can be taken away from you."

Added Turner: "Mike is playing with as much confidence as any receiver I've been around. That's the starting point for any player. As you continue to gain confidence, you let yourself go a little bit and you make plays because of it."

Westbrook insists health is the difference. "It's easier to focus on what I'm doing, because I'm not worrying about getting sick, or my knee or my neck," he said.

And finally, there is the influence of new teammates--particularly quarterback Brad Johnson, whose accuracy and poise are making nearly every skill player look good, and wide receiver Irving Fryar, a polished veteran with a huge heart.

"We have a lot of great personalities on this team," Westbrook said. "In the past, we had none of that. We had way too much jealousy--a lot of animosity. Guys didn't even think about 'team.' It wasn't 'team first'; it was them first. And whatever else happened, happened."

Gifted with speed, strength and size, Westbrook has been vexed by injury and, often, has been his own worst enemy on the field, typically following a big play with a major gaffe. He got so annoyed by the scrutiny of his missteps that he stopped talking publicly during the 1997 season and clung to a small clique within the team.

But Westbrook returned this season, vowing to become a leader and a positive force on a team he felt had been hamstrung by negative personalities.

While "team leader" is not a status one seizes overnight in pro football, Westbrook's productivity on the field has given him new credibility among his peers.

"His relationship with the rest of the players and the relationship of the rest of players to him is a great deal better than it was," said Redskins strength coach Dan Riley, a confidante of many players. "I don't know if it's time, maturation on everyone's part, experience, the success he is having, staying healthy or what."

Rude Behavior

As Westbrook recently reflected on his early years as a Redskin, he attributed his rocky transition to a locker room he says included players he believed drank too much, smoked and were jealous of his seven-year, nearly $18 million contract. He first aired those opinions in a televised interview last month with ESPN analyst and former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, saying: "A lot of my teammates were heavy drinkers and smokers. When they got drunk, it was just nuts around Redskin Park. It was a bad deal for people who were new to the game."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Westbrook elaborated. "There was a lot of things going on," he said. "There were practices we had guys missing because of alcohol, but it wasn't reported because it wasn't me. If it had been me, trust me, I would have been suspended, and I would have missed a game. I would have missed probably about six games because of something like that. But it wasn't me, so it was covered up, just like most things that happen here."

He will not identify by name the players to whom he refers.

"What we have going on now is beautiful, and I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that or hurt it," Westbrook said. "What I said already was quite enough."

Turner acknowledged the team has had isolated cases of players whose drinking was a concern but insisted they were dealt with appropriately. "To me, it is a non-issue," Turner said.

Westbrook's contemporaries dismissed the notion that players drank to a greater extent than typical 23- to 39-year-old men. "He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke or anything like that," running back Brian Mitchell said of Westbrook, "but if a guy wants to smoke a cigar or wants to have a drink, I think he can do that if he wants. I never saw where it affected the way guys played on the field."

Theismann, who detailed the hard-drinking exploits of the Redskins' notorious "Five O'Clock Club" in his 1987 autobiography, said he suspects drinking on the team is not as prevalent as it was during the 1970s and early '80s. Theismann's analysis is that the comments in the ESPN interview reflect Westbrook's search for identity as a young player in an unfamiliar world.

Veteran cornerback Darrell Green claims no knowledge of drinking among Redskins. But he acknowledges that when Westbrook arrived, "this wasn't the greatest place."

"Some of the antics that took place individually--I could see what he's saying," Green said. "When you're losing, there's a lot of things that are going on. It's very tough to become a cohesive group. Maybe it wasn't a family, anyway, to be a part of."

The difference today, Green said, is that the Redskins have more stability--in ownership and among the coaching staff and players. He believes that has played a part in Westbrook's maturation.

"Michael Westbrook is no different than a lot of other young men in this industry and in the nation," Green said. "There is a learning curve that people go through when they go from high school to college, from college to the pros. Some people have more bumps in the road than others. And depending on the stability of the family--meaning, the job they go to--it's going to affect them."

Fryar, 37, wasn't sure what to expect when he joined the Redskins in August, having been coaxed out of retirement by a team desperate for a proven wide receiver. Connell had voiced some resentment, and Fryar had no idea how Westbrook would react. So it was a pleasant surprise when Westbrook introduced himself on Fryar's first day with the team.

Fryar was the first overall pick of the 1984 draft. And to a far greater extent than Westbrook, he rode the wild wave of overnight fortune as a young pro--from glory to excess to trouble and back. Now a licensed minister, Fryar understood Westbrook's early ups and downs.

"You have to learn the hard way," Fryar said. "That's what happened to me. And Mike took some lumps and bruises from that, too. But nobody ever taught us. Nobody ever told me what comes along with being in the NFL. . . . You're thrown into this arena, and there's all of this responsibility--whether it be with money or with your character or just how you have to carry yourself every day. You make mistakes. And then all of the sudden it's like, 'What's wrong?' And everybody is pointing the finger."

By Westbrook's account, Fryar has taken on the role of "good cop" to the coaches' "bad."

"When the coaches say, 'Mike, you should have done this or done that,' I'm like, 'What are they talking about?' " Westbrook said. Fryar "comes and explains to me, 'Mike, it's not like that. It's like this.' I don't have a confidence problem--never have. But while [coaches are] doing the negative deal, he's doing the positive deal. And that's something I've never had. Henry [Ellard] did it a little bit, but not to the extent of Irving."

Explained Fryar: "The main thing I do with Mike and with anybody else on this team is just love them. That's all anybody needs. You'll get a much better response out of anybody if you love them, rather than to do anything to hurt them or demean them."

Back In Business

For a while last year, Westbrook considered never playing again.

His 1998 season was cut short by a herniated disk in his neck, suffered Dec. 6 in a game against the San Diego Chargers. Initially, he didn't want to undergo surgery.

"My first thinking was I wasn't going to play anymore. You should see my daughter; you should see how beautiful she is," he said, showing off a tattoo on his forearm that bears his 3-year-old's name, Ky. But after conferring with his mother, he changed his mind. "If I got hurt again without getting the surgery," he said, "I could be paralyzed for life."

He decided he would play.

Westbrook has had one low point this season--after the Redskins' loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 24, in which he was limited to three catches for 38 yards.

The next day, he vented to Robiskie. Asked about the conversation, Westbrook said wide receivers naturally think they should get the ball more. In the Redskins' next game, against the Chicago Bears, Johnson made a point of throwing to Westbrook more often.

"I think we need to take advantage of what I'm capable of doing," Westbrook said. "I'm not perfect; I drop balls. But I play my best and my hardest. And my best and my hardest right now, I think, is a whole hell of a lot if I'm used properly."

MICHAEL WESTBROOK'S CAREER

Receiving Rushing

Year No. Yds. Avg. Lg. TD - No. Yds. Avg. Lg. TD

1995 34 522 15.4 45 1 6 114 19.0 58t 1

1996 34 505 14.9 45 1 2 2 1.0 2 0

1997 34 559 16.4 40t 3 3 -11 -3.7 7 0

1998 44 736 16.7 75t 6 11 11 1.0 11 0

1999 36 662 18.4 59 5 5 22 4.4 12 0

Totals 182/2,984/16.4/75t/16 - 17/138/8.1/58t/1