Westbrook cut loose

11-27-02, 9:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Michael Westbrook is relieved to be away from the Bengals' wide receiver position in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and isn't sure if he'll keep playing.

The Bengals released one of their more high profile free agents Wednesday night and then filled his roster spot with rookie tackle Reggie Coleman, coming back from a one-week suspension after hitting teammate Thatcher Szalay.

"It got to be a zoo and my heart hasn't been in it for the last month and a half, two months," said Westbrook after getting word from head coach Dick LeBeau. "Twenty-two years of playing football and my heart wasn't there because they gave up on me. I don't know if I'll play again. For now, I'm just going home to laugh at the whole nightmare."

After he had no catches and ran two wrong routes last Sunday against the Steelers, the coaches apparently felt he hadn't progressed in picking up the system and wanted to get Danny Farmer in the lineup as the fifth receiver. That was after he incurred their wrath two weeks ago against the Browns, when he blew two routes, one of them in the red zone in the fourth quarter during a series the Bengals had to settle for a field goal in the 27-20 loss to Cleveland.

Westbrook, who gets about $1 million of a $4.5 million deal he

signed back in July, played just 13 snaps last Sunday in Pittsburgh and caught just eight balls for 94 yards in nine games. A long way from what they had hoped the former No. 1 pick with 277 career catches and 24 touchdowns would do as the big-play receiver replacing Darnay Scott.

"It was unfortunate it didn't work out for him here," said receivers coach Steve Mooshagian. "He got behind the eight-ball right away with his injury in camp and it was hard to catch up with receivers who had already been here and had knowledge of the system. I enjoyed working with the guy."

Westbrook, 30, had been on the outside looking in ever since he broke his navicular bone in his left wrist at the end of the third practice of training camp, and he voiced displeasure Wednesday with how he was used.

"Since I was Michael Westbrook, it was like I couldn't make any mistakes," he said. "If I made a

mistake, I went from having 40 plays to 10 plays. But another guy could make three mistakes and it wouldn't matter. That got to be a joke when you looked at the film. I guess that was just a reflection of the people running the show.

"They put me in when I was hurt against Cleveland with a cast on my hand," said Westbrook of the second game of the season, "and then benched me when I didn't play like Michael Westbrook."

Bengals' insiders were perplexed because he had the same injury in Washington and produced big numbers, and were shocked when he had just two catches against the Browns that second week despite having 13 balls thrown to him.

Chad Johnson has taken Westbrook's spot as the Bengals' go-to-receiver, averaging 5.5 catches and 94 yards in the last six games as the first Bengal in eight years to have three straight 100-yard receiving days.

"If I wasn't going to be their go-to-guy, then they should have stuck with Pete (Warrick) or T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) as their possession receivers," Westbrook said. "But they were like me. They can't make any mistakes, either."

The coaches used Westbrook sparingly against the Steelers last week in Pittsburgh because he had missed some time in a game-plan installation walk-through with an illness, and he didn't practice Saturday with a neck ailment.

They also sent a powerful message to him when they didn't use Westbrook, their most physical and biggest receiver, on four tries from the Steelers' 5-yard line in the final minute of the 29-21 loss because he wasn't part of their spread package.

Westbrook's absence from Wednesday's practice because of a family illness probably sealed his fate to be inactive this week against the Ravens, but releasing him had been in the works since he was inactive against the Steelers back on Oct. 13.

"I went to (LeBeau) and told him I was thinking about retiring if they didn't release me," Westbrook said. "He didn't want me to retire and he wouldn't let me go."

Westbrook's best moment came when he caught two touchdown passes against Houston in the Bengals' 38-3 victory Nov. 3.

The Bengals signed Westbrook when they couldn't get Scott to take a pay cut from $3 million to about $1.5 million for this season. Instead, Scott got the minimum in Dallas, where he has one touchdown and a 9.4-yard average for his 18 catches.

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