The team's success hinges on quarterback Donovan McNabb, and the city's notoriously demanding fans have spent all of training camp salivating over the arrival of wide receiver Terrell Owens, leaving only a sliver of the spotlight for other members of the Philadelphia Eagles' offense.
But suddenly there's room for someone else -- tailback Brian Westbrook, who's now Mr. Indispensible.
This was to be a season in which Westbrook, a 24-year-old D.C. native and former DeMatha High standout who piled up yards far from the college football limelight at Villanova University, eased into the job of being the Eagles' featured running back. He was to split the duties with Correll Buckhalter.
That was before Friday night. The Lincoln Financial Field crowd was still catching its breath after Owens's 81-yard touchdown catch on the Eagles' first offensive play of their preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens when Buckhalter's right knee crumpled before he even was hit on the club's second play. A torn patellar tendon ended Buckhalter's season, and the Eagles' locker room was glum late that night. Westbrook was as upset as everyone else, talking about his disappointment for Buckhalter.
But the conversation turned to his expanded role in the offense and the increased responsibility for the Eagles' season of great expectations now thrust upon him, and Westbrook flashed some self-assurance when he said: "I think I'll have to play a little bit more. But at the same time, I think I can handle it."
Said McNabb: "Just buckle your seat belt and get ready to watch him. The guy is an exciting player. When the ball is in his hands, you never know what can happen. He's a big play waiting to happen. He's electrifying. The guy can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can pick up the blitz. He can run the ball between the tackles. He may be small in stature, but the guy has a big heart, and he's a guy that you can feel confident in carrying the ball and catching the ball."
Westbrook has offered glimpses of greatness in his two NFL seasons since the Eagles selected him in the third round of the 2002 draft. At his best, he is a 5-foot-10, 205-pound dynamo who zigzags around defenders on runs, catches and returns kicks. He scored 13 touchdowns last season -- seven on rushes, four on receptions and two on punt returns. He might have saved the Eagles' season from early collapse with a dramatic 84-yard punt return for a touchdown to beat the New York Giants in mid-October when a loss would have dropped Philadelphia's record to 2-4.
Now he must demonstrate that he can shoulder the burden of being a full-time player for a team that has lost three straight NFC championship games. The Eagles' playoff chances last year were damaged when they lost Westbrook to a torn left triceps during a victory over the Washington Redskins in the last game of the season.
"I think a lot of people have doubted what I could do as a player, mainly because of my size," Westbrook said earlier in training camp. "I think I've proven myself. I've rushed for a good amount of yards. But not having played a whole season and rushed for as many yards as some other people, I think I still have some things to prove. It's not really my goal to prove things to people, but I think as I go on this year and do the things I expect to do, I will prove to people that a guy my size can make it in the NFL, make a good living, being an every-down back."
Westbrook set an NCAA record for career all-purpose yards at Villanova, where he ended up after the football powerhouses that were recruiting him -- some to play defense -- were scared off by a torn knee ligament he suffered as a senior at DeMatha. He got only 46 carries and rushed for 193 yards in 2002 as an Eagles rookie, then ran for a team-leading 613 yards and had 37 receptions last season while splitting time at tailback with Buckhalter and Duce Staley. The trio combined to rush for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns on 339 carries.
Staley left as a free agent in the offseason, signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now only Westbrook remains. The Eagles signed veteran Dorsey Levens, who spent last season with the Giants after averaging 5.5 yards per carry for Philadelphia in 2002, on Monday and have inexperienced running backs Reno Mahe, Eric McCoo and Thomas Tapeh. Tailback Bruce Perry, a seventh-round draft choice from the University of Maryland, has been lost for the season because of a dislocated shoulder.
It's possible another veteran runner could be obtained at some point. But, at least for now, it's clear Westbrook will have to be the main man at running back to provide balance for an offense bolstered by the March trade for four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Owens, whose every move at training camp at Lehigh University drew wild applause from onlookers.
"Offensively we've still got the weapons," Owens said.
Said Westbrook: "I'm surrounded by a cast of characters that can put points on the board, that can make plays, that can make big throws and make big catches. I'm definitely blessed for that reason. I don't think it puts pressure on me at all. All I have to do is go out and do my job. I don't have to worry about somebody else's job. If I do my job, we'll be fine.''