Rich Hofmann | Without Westbrook, Birds have no chance

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Correll Buckhalter, who rushed for 103 yards in Brian Westbrook's absence, pushes Giants safety Gibril Wilson.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Life without Brian is a meager existence, unless you like sacks and punts. It is an

unimaginable life for the

Eagles'

offense. For two seasons, at least, Brian Westbrook has been the single irreplaceable piece for this team. Last night offered the definitive

demonstration.

They cannot win without

Westbrook. They can barely

compete without Westbrook.

Defensive guts and guile can

carry a team only so far in the NFL of the 21st century and they could not carry the Eagles last night past a middling, muddling team of New York Giants.

The final score - Giants 16, Eagles 3 - was an accurate enough representation of the facts. But the subtext surrounding the absence of Westbrook

because of an abdominal strain was everything.

Your quarterback, Donovan McNabb, does not get hammered into pudding - and sent to the postgame X-ray room - if Westbrook is around to make the defense respect the myriad lethal possibilities that he presents. If nothing else, two words: screen pass.

Your offensive line, and particularly first-time starting left tackle Winston Justice, does not get its collective head handed to it - 12 sacks; ridiculous - if Westbrook can command the kind of coverage and attention that leaves many of the defense's blitzes holstered.

Westbrook alters everything. Watching them without him last night was truly jarring.

The Eagles are a team that is long on good soldiers and short on game-changers. It appears there is little chance of the

defense conjuring up a steady supply of big plays, and no chance that the special teams will. Given that, they cannot

possibly survive this season if their only true star player is

absent for much longer. Cannot. End of discussion.

In that sense, the bye comes

at a good time for this 1-3 football team. But that's the only good thing. This was every bit a disaster. Only the cover provided by the Phillies and their playoff run will ease the sting of the

interrogation in the coming days.

But how much did Westbrook's absence mean?

"I'm not sure he would have made a difference," said Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who had a team-record six sacks.

This was a lie. They might not have won the game, but Westbrook does mean that much. The Giants would not have had

a dozen sacks if they had to

worry about him.

"I have no idea what they would have done if I had been out there," Westbrook said. "Hopefully, we would have been able to make some plays."

Westbrook added, "Osi, he's a Pro Bowl player. Winston hasn't played much at all . . . but we have to do some things to

protect him."

For some reason, most people seemed to do the sigh-of-relief thing when word came down on Monday that Westbrook had an abdominal strain and not a rib problem. They are people who had no experience with abdominal strains in athletes.

These are bad injuries. They do not get better, not all the way, not until the offseason. They are persistent and painful. You feel it every time you put your hand on the ground, every time the quarterback lays the ball in your gut, every time you breathe if the injury is particularly acute.

The tasks of football always make it worse. The tasks of

living - such as the aforementioned breathing - often make it worse. You can try to mask the pain but it is only temporary and creates a false bravado that only makes the injury worse in the end.

The whole thing can be as

brutal as it is persistent. The

Eagles made the right move here, the percentage play, in holding out Westbrook last night.

"A game-time decision," Andy Reid said.

With the bye week upon them, the Eagles can give him a full 20 days to rest the injury between when it happened (last Sunday against Detroit) and their next game (Oct. 14 against the New York Jets). If nothing else, they have given themselves time to

organize a proper novena.

"I wanted to play," said Westbrook, who is hopeful he can play against the Jets. "It just didn't work out that way . . . when

you're not physically healthy it's difficult to play. You can't play. The injury didn't heal."

So it was the right move. But it still left a football game for them to play. And while we have all said this for a while now, how

important Westbrook is to this attack, we now have a Technicolor demonstration of this fact.

Without Brian, McNabb is black and blue. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com.

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