SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — If the San Francisco 49ers ever plan to use newcomer Brian Westbrook, this weekend seemingly provides the perfect opportunity — in a prime-time game against the erstwhile Pro Bowl running back’s former teammates from Philadelphia.
Yet finding a role for Westbrook has been shoved far down the list of priorities for 49ers coach Mike Singletary and Mike Johnson, his freshly minted offensive coordinator. They’re focused on making sure yet another season doesn’t slip away for their 0-4 team, which has undoubtedly more talent — and possibly more frustration — than any edition of this formerly proud franchise in nearly a decade.
“We are constantly, each week, trying to find ways to get Brian and other players involved,” said Johnson, whose offense managed one measly touchdown in a loss to Atlanta last week in his debut replacing the fired Jimmy Raye. “We know Brian has been a very good player in this league for a long time, and we are going to try to utilize his talents.”
Forgive 49ers fans if they don’t buy it just yet. They’ve watched Westbrook stand on the sideline for all but four plays of San Francisco’s first four games, watching an offense that averages just 78.8 yards rushing even while running back Frank Gore leads the NFC with 533 yards from scrimmage.
The Eagles (2-2), who visit Candlestick Park on Sunday night, have too many offensive concerns of their own to worry much about Westbrook, who was released in February after eight seasons in Philadelphia.
After losing Michael Vick to cartilage damage in his ribs last Sunday, the Eagles must rally against San Francisco’s solid defense behind Kevin Kolb, who is expected to make his fourth NFL start.
Kolb knows he’ll lead the Eagles under tough conditions when he replaces the NFC’s offensive player of last month, but he’s confident Philadelphia can maintain the progress it has shown on offense.
“Pressure is a weird deal,” said Kolb, who began the season as the Eagles’ starter before losing the job to Vick on a concussion. “You don’t necessarily feel it. … I’m not nervous about it, I’m excited about it. I’m having more fun right now than I’ve had in this game ever, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
With an offense racking up 364 yards per game and a defense that has given up just 79 points, the Eagles are on much more solid footing than the 49ers, who haven’t opened a season at 0-5 since1979, when they went 0-7 on the way to a 2-14 mark in coach Bill Walsh’s first season.
Two years later, they won their first Super Bowl. The current 49ers would just settle for their first victory. If the 49ers hope to have a shot at becoming the first 0-4 team to make the playoffs since San Diego in 1992, they’ll have to repair an offense that has floundered despite a wealth of skill-position talent. San Francisco is averaging 13 points per game, 31st in the NFL.
“It is frustrating, but this is a marathon,” said embattled quarterback Alex Smith, an 8-year-old fan of those 1992 Chargers in his hometown. “This is about finishing strong. You still look at the division where we’re at, and there’s a lot of opportunity there. We’ve got to get back on track, and it starts with one. That’s the key. It starts with one right now.”
Even with Gore playing extensively and ranking second in the NFC with 29 catches, the 49ers have barely used Westbrook, a dynamic playmaker for several seasons before an injury-plagued 2009, when Philadelphia released him to save $7.5 million in cap space.
For all their rushing struggles, the 49ers’ offensive woes have been most obvious in an inept downfield passing game. Smith has completed just 1 of 11 throws going at least 21 yards down the field — and Smith lost another target when tight end Delanie Walker showed up on crutches this week with an injured left ankle.
Yet the Eagles headed to the West Coast with ample respect for the 49ers, the popular pick to win the NFC West.
“Even last week, they should have beat the Falcons,” Philadelphia safety Quintin Mikell said. “It really came down to a fluke play at the end. And the Saints, a team that everybody is all up on right now, they almost beat them. They’re definitely a good team. They have a lot of weapons. Just, for some reason, they can’t pull it out. We’re definitely not going to take this lightly at all, even if they are 0-4.”
San Francisco safety Michael Lewis, another former Eagles star, quit the 49ers last week in frustration with mixed messages from the 49ers’ coaching staff. Lewis is already the third player to leave the 49ers abruptly this season, joining second-year running back Glen Coffee and Kentwan Balmer, their disappointing former first-round pick.
That means little to the Eagles, who must adjust on the fly to another quarterback change if they hope to stay in playoff contention during a four-week stretch with just one home game.
“We’re hurt that we lost Vick, but it’s great for a guy like Kevin to come in and step in, because he’s already had the spot and he’s used to it,” said DeSean Jackson, the former Cal receiver who’s still a bit irked the 49ers passed on him in the draft three years ago. “We know what we have riding on the line. We just want to set ourselves up to win.”
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