- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

Although Washington Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook didn't catch 90 passes or make the Pro Bowl, he finally enjoyed a breakout season.

Westbrook makes the downfield passing game work for the Redskins, who will visit Tampa Bay in Saturday's NFC semifinal playoff game. Running back Stephen Davis is the offensive core, but Westbrook's 65 catches for 1,191 yards and nine touchdowns were career bests.

"Westbrook is always an important part of this offense. Anybody who says different is sadly mistaken," guard Tre Johnson said. "He turned a lot of games for us. Stephen Davis is the jab and body work of the fight. You need him to set up a lot of stuff, but that overhand right is Westbrook and Albert Connell down the field. You need both to win the fight. Each is equally important."

Previously noted mainly for his injuries and off-field problems, Westbrook played 16 games for the first time in his five seasons despite wearing a splint on a broken right wrist for the final seven games. His only sanction was a $3,000 fine for joining the brawl against the Detroit Lions last Saturday.

The Redskins had been planning to trade Westbrook during the offseason before a herniated disc in his neck forced him to miss the final three games of 1998. Even Westbrook feared it might be a career-ending injury until the second game this season, when a jarring tackle didn't bother his neck.

The injury caused Westbrook to change his mercurial attitude. Suddenly the Redskins' senior receiver, he became a team leader and ended his two-year silence with the media. He is now a steady presence in the locker room.

Citing quarterback Brad Johnson's 90.0 pass rating the Redskins' highest since 1991 and his own relative good health, Westbrook said he's merely fulfilling his potential.

"There were a lot of factors with my consistency, like playing with six different quarterbacks in four years and the guys throwing didn't have a grasp for what the offense was about," he said. "When I'm healthy, I can do what God gave me the ability to do. You put the ball near me, and I'll dive for it."

Coach Norv Turner has steadily warmed to Westbrook after a tempestuous relationship during the player's first few seasons. Turner cited maturity as the reason for Westbrook's improvement from a previous high of 43 catches.

"Michael just continued to develop and understand more about playing the position," Turner said. "He's starting to develop a good relationship with Brad, which takes time. He was hampered a little bit by the wrist for a couple games, but if you have 1,200 yards receiving, you've had an awfully good year."

Westbrook has long lobbied for more passes. However, Davis rushing for a team single-season record 1,405 yards with 17 touchdowns and a diverse passing scheme prevented any receiver from standing out. Fullback Larry Centers led the Redskins with 69 catches, and Albert Connell grabbed 62. It was the first time since 1990 that three Redskins receivers had caught at least 60 passes.

"It's hard to get the numbers you would like to go to the Pro Bowl," Westbrook said. "There's a lot of hands, a lot of talent on this team for one guy to be getting 90 balls and 1,700 yards."

But will Westbrook be the primary target against Tampa Bay? The Redskins threw 10 of their 31 passes against the Lions toward Westbrook. While several were uncatchable, he caught only two for 22 yards while Centers grabbed seven for 61 yards and Connell's pair included a 30-yard touchdown.

"Ten balls is a lot in a game," passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie said. "When Mike catches two, people ask, 'Why you didn't get the ball to him?' When you get 10 balls thrown your way, you should catch seven or eight balls. You got to make it happen. If the ball is thrown over your head or on the ground that's another deal, but you have to get it done."

Indeed, Robiskie expects another diverse passing game to be essential tomorrow if Davis is hampered by his sprained ankle.

"You hope you can throw the ball 30 times, complete 20 and spread it around," Robiskie said. "Throw 10 to Mike, 10 to Albert, seven or eight to Stephen Alexander, four or five to Skip Hicks and three or four to Larry Centers."

Meanwhile, Westbrook has been reinvigorated by playing in his first postseason.

"It feels like the season is ready to start again," he said. "I have fresh legs, and I don't understand that. It would seem like I would be exhausted, but I'm not. It's like a second wind."

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