Stability soothes Westbrook

11-8-02, 6:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

In a matter of about an hour last Sunday, the perception of Michael Westbrook went from free-agent malcontent to big-play maestro when his first two catches since the second game of the season were touchdowns.

About as fast as his pass route in Wednesday's practice.

"There was a deep post yesterday and after I got back (to the huddle), there was an argument," said Westbrook in Thursday's sit-down with bengals.com on audio.

"Am I the fastest guy on the team? I went from my speed being suspect to, am I the fastest guy on the team?"

The debate centered on Westbrook and fellow wideout Chad Johnson. If the stopwatch isn't cut-and-dried, at least the depth chart is becoming more definitive. With Westbrook, Johnson and Peter Warrick emerging as a go-to trio, Westbrook is finally seeing some lineup consistencies.

"I don't know about winning all (eight), but we're going to win a lot of these games," Westbrook said. "We finally have a starting team now. There's no more quarterback rotation. We have a starting X and starting Z (receivers), even though we bring in everybody in for special plays, everybody knows what their job is and everyone is fine with it. That took a long time. Especially me being (injured) and not even being a part of it."

Westbrook isn't the first receiver to hope for a more stable rotation among the Bengals' six wideouts, but he is the first to score more than one touchdown in 42 games since Carl Pickens did it in the last century. When Westbrook went up to tear the ball away from Ravens middle linebacker Jamie Sharper in the end zone, it was also the first time since Pickens that the Bengals had a big, strong receiver win a huge jump ball.

"It's the first time for me, too, since before 2000," said Westbrook of his ACL injury that wiped out that season. "I'm getting back to where I was."

It took Westbrook eight games to do what Pickens, Darnay Scott, and Cris Collinsworth never did. Catch a TD pass for the Bengals at age 30.

"Probably," said Westbrook, when asked if the quarterback shuffle stunted the offense. "Trying to find out who is who and what is what. The receiver rotation is a dance, too. Receivers have been hustling in and out so often. I think that it's getting a little more stable. We need to keep going with what we're doing and stabilize things a little."

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said he plans to expand Westbrook's role this week in the

effort to work him back into things in a process that has been delayed by the broken wrist three days into training camp and the hamstring injury that took him out of the Tennessee game two weeks ago.

"He's going to be more involved this week and we'll see how he does," said Bratkowski, who is hesitant to put rotation in stone. "Last week's combination worked. Let's see how it works this week. If Michael can stay healthy and continue to get reps, he'll be fine. He's still not comfortable with some of the little things in the offense, but we'll keep his role limited and gradually open it up to give him the best chance to succeed."

Westbrook didn't shy away from bristling publicly when his playing time decreased rapidly after struggling in the second and third games of the season with a wrist that wasn't all the way healed. It culminated in him not dressing for the Oct. 13 game against Pittsburgh, which frustrated him because he thought he went to the bench just as he was getting healthy. He ripped the move, but it's a different game now and he feels he's showed Bratkowski and quarterback Jon Kitna what he can do.

"Once I got healthy, I could prove I could go out there and be a dominant receiver," Westbrook said. "You actually need to show quarterbacks and offensive coordinators what you're capable of doing in practice and games . . .(so they) can become comfortable with you. . .I' m always at the mercy of my offensive coordinator and quarterback I have to prove to them that I can make (big plays). It opened the door for me to make more plays."

Westbrook went to Bratkowski at halftime and urged him to keep throwing and not sit on the lead. Bratkowski assured him he wouldn't and Westbrook got his second TD pass, the first time since Oct. 3, 1999 he went for more than one in a game.

That was back in his days with the Redskins. Now he goes back to the region Sunday in Baltimore trying to keep his second career going. He left Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis and returns with Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon.

"Stephen is a heavier guy. Compared to Corey, he's stiff, because Corey is like a loose power runner that can juke and run over you," Westbrook said. "I would probably pick Corey over Stephen."

For more of the interview, please click.

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