Reggie Bush's rushing output hasn't matched his hype. Is that a reflection of his talents, or of the Saints' system?
ONE OF the drawbacks of having the first pick in the draft—besides the reality that you've had a worse year than Britney Spears—is that you'll be second-guessed until your selection establishes himself as an elite player. The Texans were reminded of this last season when Vince Young, the wunderkind hometown quarterback they passed over, returned to Houston and ran for the decisive touchdown in the Titans' overtime win. Another such meeting awaits the Texans on Sunday when Saints running back Reggie Bush comes to town for the first time since Houston passed on the consensus No. 1 in favor of defensive end Mario Williams, whose inconsistent play in college has followed him to the pros (8 1/2 sacks in 25 games).
If Bush runs wild in Reliant Stadium, the Texans are sure to hear it from fans. But the decision to pass on Bush doesn't appear quite as dubious as it did, largely because Bush has failed to dominate since leaving USC with a host of records and a Heisman Trophy. "I thought he was the best player I had ever seen coming out of college, along with Bo Jackson," says a defensive coordinator who has game-planned against Bush. "Now? Let's just say the production hasn't matched the hype."
It wasn't uncommon for Bush to run for 100 yards in a quarter with the Trojans, but in a season and a half as a pro he has reached that mark only once in a game. This year he's averaging 3.8 yards per carry, roughly half his college clip. He did set a rookie mark for running backs with 88 receptions last year, but elite tailbacks are measured by how they run the ball.
At 6 feet and 203 pounds, Bush isn't built for the pounding that comes with running repeatedly between the tackles. Consequently, New Orleans coach Sean Payton has used short passes, sweeps and misdirection to get him the ball in open space. That was fine before workhorse tailback Deuce McAllister went down in Week 3 with a season-ending knee injury, but as the feature back, Bush must prove he can be effective running inside to keep defenses honest.
Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett admitted as much after Sunday's 37--29 win in the Superdome, saying that his overriding concern was the Saints' passing game. He blitzed quarterback Drew Brees on all but two plays in the first half and basically treated Bush as a receiver—which proved wise in the end. Bush ran between the tackles just four times in the first half, netting nine yards. He finished the game with seven carries for 17 yards.
In college Bush had the speed to get to the edge and outrun defenders. He tried the same thing during his rookie season but ultimately realized he wouldn't have the same success because faster defenders reduce the width of the field.
"We were watching a college game the other day, and a guy made a great move and got outside," says New Orleans running backs coach George Henshaw. "Reggie said, 'Yeah, I used to make that move at Southern Cal, but that doesn't work here.'"
In some respects, the unsolicited admission was a breakthrough. "Reggie's used to going out there and being Superman, running circles around people," Brees says. "Obviously, it's different at this level. You can't get to the edge like you could in college. His natural tendency is, 'I'm going to bounce this thing, and I'm going to take it down the sideline for 80.' So it's constantly like, 'Reggie, just hit this thing up in there. Just give me five yards. Let's get this first down.'"
Since McAllister's injury, Bush's combined rushing and receiving numbers have increased from 15 touches and 50 yards a game to 22 and 101. He has had 17 or more carries in four of his last six games, after getting that many only once in his first 19 with the Saints. Still, many league observers view him as being a greater threat as a receiver than as a runner.
"That's just the offensive system we have," says Bush, who affects the game even when he doesn't touch the ball because of the attention he demands from defenses. "We don't have the system where we rely on the backs to run the ball 30, 40 times. We have a great quarterback and great receivers who are able to get down the field and make some plays, and we're able to feed off each other. I feel like that works out for the best.... I try to focus on the positive, and I definitely don't worry about what other coaches have to say about me. I just do my part and make plays for my team."
A personnel executive who recently scouted Bush said of those who question his impact: "They must be blind. I've seen firsthand how explosive he can be as a runner and as a receiver. There's no doubt in my mind that he's just as explosive as he was in college. I think his carries and how they utilize him have been limited, but that's just smart football."
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MATT STAMEY/US PRESSWIRE (BUSH)
HARD GOING Bush is getting more carries in '07 but hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game.