HE SHOWED up day after day at a practice field in Metairie, La., his feet dancing on the grass, the ball clutched against his body. For the first time as a pro, this was Reggie Bush's off-season ritual—punching the clock at the Saints' nondescript facility rather than at a gym in far-off California. "You can go somewhere else and work as hard as you want," says quarterback Drew Brees, "but if the guys don't see it, there's always that doubt."
Bush's teammates took note of his presence and hope it bodes well for the rushing attack. After a deep playoff run in 2006, propelled by the bruising Deuce McAllister and a late-season surge by Bush, the Saints stumbled along with their backfield in '07. McAllister blew out his left ACL in Week 3; Bush, thrust into the feature-back role, gained only 581 yards in 12 games before missing the last four with a tear in his posterior cruciate ligament. The whispers began. Would Bush ever be the running back he was at USC? "It's been fun, it's been frustrating and it's been a learning experience," he says. "Some people have great careers right off the bat. Some people have to learn. I know I'm not a bust."
New Orleans wants Bush to do better in short-yardage situations and in sustaining drives. The emphasis this summer has been on getting him to stay patient as plays develop—to take the midrange gain rather than try for the home run on every play and risk a loss. It's unrealistic to expect him to average the 7.3 yards per carry he did in college, but it's essential that he improve on his 3.7-yard mark as a pro. Says McAllister, who has looked healthy in preseason game action, "If your number is going to be called more frequently, you almost have to not necessarily lower your expectations but get that three or four yards a carry. Then, when the opportunity for that big run comes, you take advantage of it."
At their best, McAllister and Bush are the NFC's version of Jacksonville's Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. At less than that, there are doubts about their reliability. McAllister's got the size, at 6'1" and 232 pounds, but he has started all 16 games only once in seven seasons. Bush, barely six feet and 203 pounds, may not have the build to join the ranks of LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson. Says Bobby Hebert, the former Saints quarterback and now a radio broadcaster, "When Reggie has truly been successful, it's been that one-two combination, where his role is not as a pure running back but as that hybrid back you line up in the slot and put him in motion."
Wherever he lines up, Bush at least has sold his teammates on his commitment and focus. Says tackle Jon Stinchcomb. "I see a guy who's hungry."
CRYSTAL LOGIUDICE/US PRESSWIRE
PATIENCE PAYS New Orleans wants Bush to let plays develop rather than try for the long gain on every touch.