- The Washington Times - Friday, November 23, 2001

It is typical Michael Westbrook. It is no surprise that the final weeks of this season likely Westbrook's final days with the Washington Redskins began with a tease of what might have been.
The Redskins receiver delivered the second-highest catch output of his seven-year career in a 17-10 victory over the Denver Broncos this past Sunday, with nine receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown. But whether he'll remain the No. 1 option when the Redskins face the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday is doubtful. The Redskins instead are grooming rookie Rod Gardner to be Westbrook's successor, leaving Westbrook to be a fallback option or a blocker.
It is a surprising tactic considering that Westbrook has played in the Redskins' first nine games for only the second season since he was taken with the fourth overall pick in the 1995 draft. Westbrook caught 65 passes for 1,191 yards and nine touchdowns in 1999, his first injury-free season. Westbrook reached midseason this year with just 20 catches.
Westbrook gives lip service to being a role player, to just helping the team however he is used, but his discontent sometimes shows. The once-headstrong player now is calculated in his comments, but those close to Westbrook know he's simply waiting for his chance to shine. Maybe it was the Denver game. Maybe it will never come again as a Redskin.
"It's hard to be happy when you're not being used, but I'm not complaining," Westbrook said. "If they use me, fine, if they don't, that's fine. I try to be true to that attitude because it's hard to accept."
Westbrook, sometimes a locker room outcast in the past, hoped to become a leader this season. Westbrook nearly was cut in 1997 after a fight with running back Stephen Davis, and it took years for him to overcome a reputation stained by immaturity in his first several seasons.
Now, however, Westbrook is second in seniority on the Redskins behind cornerback Darrell Green, and he had wanted to become a mentor to the team's young receivers. Instead, team sources said, coaches minimized Westbrook's attempts to help the younger players during practices, and the receivers got the hint.
Westbrook had lofty goals when he entered the NFL: regular Pro Bowl appearances and, one day, a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The all-star accolades never came, and 249 career catches leave Westbrook far from enshrinement in Canton. That's why this season has tested Westbrook's newfound maturity. He wants to be a ball hawk, not a blocker.
"It's not what I'm here for. It's not what I envisioned as a little boy. I want to catch touchdown passes," Westbrook said. "To be used primarily as a blocker is disappointing, but that's the job they want me to do here. I have no choice but to do what they ask me."
Coach Marty Schottenheimer said Westbrook is not underused. After all, Westbrook has caught 29 passes, the most on the Redskins. The new offense scatters the ball and is a run-first scheme; no receiver is likely to post gaudy statistics.
"Michael has conducted himself quite well given the circumstances," Schottenheimer said. "There was a comment he was not appreciated. That's never been the case. In the course of a season, you get a rhythm between quarterback and receiver, and we haven't gotten to that rhythm yet. Part of that is because everyone is learning something new, and part of that is everyone hasn't had a chance to develop chemistry."
The Redskins considered trading Westbrook last month, according to team sources. However, midseason moves are rare, and there were no takers. The offseason will be different, though. Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent, and receivers with less talent have gotten good deals in recent years.
Former Redskins teammates James Thrash and Albert Connell signed with other teams during the past offseason, with mixed success. Thrash is now the Philadelphia Eagles' leading receiver with 35 catches and seven touchdowns. Connell, who in the offseason got a $2 million bonus to become the New Orleans Saints' No. 1 receiver, has only nine catches and one touchdown and is the No. 4 wideout.
Westbrook has seen his teammates' fate. Sometimes a change of venue brings good fortune. Sometimes it means failure. Westbrook won't say whether he expects to return, but Connell and Thrash have shown him what can happen elsewhere.
"Albert's very inconsistent. That's always been his downfall," Westbrook said. "James Thrash is a hungrier person than most people, so it was easy for him to do well. It's easy to have success when they're throwing you the ball. I'm more hungry than James Thrash. Throw me the ball and you'll be successful."
Note Quarterback Tony Banks fully practiced yesterday for the first time since suffering a concussion on Sunday. He's expected to start against Philadelphia. "I don't see any doubt that he'll play," Schottenheimer said.

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