Among the Saints' grab bag of running backs, pedigree takes a backseat to production
The Saints use four running backs, but it's not so much a ground game by committee as controlled chaos. There's Mike Bell, 26, originally an undrafted free agent, who for a time in 2008 was a volunteer high school coach; he led New Orleans in carries this season. There's Pierre Thomas, 25, another undrafted player, who was covering kickoffs in addition to his backfield duties last year; he led the Saints in rushing yards in '09. There's Lynell Hamilton, 24, yet another back ignored in the draft, who had five operations on his knees and ankles in college; he scored the Saints' first touchdown of the postseason. And there's Reggie Bush, 24, the No. 2 pick in 2006 and the most celebrated college back of his time; he was only the third-most productive of the lot this season—until New Orleans's 45--14 divisional-round victory over Arizona last Saturday, when he showed how he became so famous in the first place.
During a team dinner the night before, Bush spoke with his friend and former business manager Mike Ornstein, who'd negotiated his endorsement deals when he came out of USC. Ornstein asked Bush, "Are you nervous?" Bush had much to be anxious about. He hadn't had more than six rushing attempts in a game since September. He remains the subject of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits while he was at USC. His surgically repaired left knee still bothers him. He doesn't even know if the Saints will bring him back next season. But Ornstein was referring only to the playoff game against the Cardinals.
"No way," Bush snapped. "Great players live for this moment. We're going to kill those guys."
Bush ran onto the field the following afternoon carrying a baseball bat inscribed with the words bring the wood—coach Sean Payton's party favor for each player on Friday night—but he did the real damage with his feet. His 46-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, in which he spun into and out of the arms of Cardinals cornerback Bryant McFadden, then sprinted through a pack of Arizona defenders, had teammates reminiscing about his field-traversing 50-yard scoring run against Fresno State in 2005. His 87-yard punt return for a TD in the third quarter prompted gratuitous camera shots of girlfriend Kim Kardashian and chants of "Reg-GIE, Reg-GIE." After that play, Mr. January lay on his back in the end zone, and as he stared up at the Superdome's massive roof, sucking deep breaths, he seemed to be giving his career a second wind. The Saints are in the NFC Championship Game, and the Vikings must beware of Bush.
He is a product of the highlight generation, a back more electrifying than efficient. Last year New Orleans experimented with Bush as an every-down back and finished 28th in the NFL in rushing. This season New Orleans handed the starting job to Thomas and rose all the way to sixth in the league. "People tell me I fit in down here because my name is Pierre," says Thomas, a native of Lynwood, Ill. He also fits because his old nickname is P.T. Cruiser—he's a low-maintenance alternative to Bush, the human Lamborghini. Excelling in traffic, Thomas averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season, more than the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and the Ravens' Ray Rice.
Thomas probably would not be anywhere near an NFC title game if his Thornton Fractional South High had not drawn Champaign Central in the first round of the 2001 Illinois state playoffs. Central had a player, Drew McMahon, whose father, Greg, was an assistant coach at Illinois. After watching Thomas break seven tackles and hurdle two defenders on a 70-yard touchdown run in that game, McMahon recruited him for the Fighting Illini. On the day of the 2007 draft McMahon, by then the Saints' special teams coach, told Payton, "I've never felt more passionately about a player than I do about Pierre Thomas. He's not going to get drafted, but if we sign him as a free agent, I think you'll like him."
Thomas joined the Saints even though they already had Bush and veteran Deuce McAllister and had just spent a fourth-round pick on Ohio State's Antonio Pittman. He hurdled them all, one by one, like those Central defensive players. This season Thomas was joined in the rotation by Bell, who came to the Saints in November 2008 after an unwelcome stint at fullback in Denver. Bell believes his time on the high school sidelines in '08 served him better than any workout regimen: "I needed to see the appreciation those kids had for the game, for the fun and camaraderie," he says. "I lost sight of that." Now he's a role model for Hamilton, who as a senior at San Diego State was also compelled to play fullback, a move that nearly cost him a pro career. "Look at us," says Hamilton, a practice-squad player last year. "Everybody in here has some crazy story. There are a lot of chips on a lot of shoulders."
The Saints like to think of themselves as outcasts—quarterback Drew Brees arrived from San Diego as damaged goods, wideout Marques Colston lasted until the seventh round, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey were exiled from New York—so the motley troupe of running backs, who combined for 170 rushing yards on 29 carries against Arizona, does not seem so strange. After Saturday night's game they dressed in a row: Bell in a sweatshirt, Hamilton in a T-shirt, Thomas in an untucked button-down and Bush in an impeccable gray three-piece suit with black shirt and black tie. He had begun the day by chatting with Brad Pitt on the sideline, and now he was presumably heading out to meet his reality-show girlfriend.
The others cannot relate. Nevertheless, they form a majority on the committee. In fact, New Orleans signed another unlikely back last week: He's 31, hasn't had a carry all season and thought he was retired. Yes, McAllister is back, and the way the Saints are resuscitating runners, the Vikings may have to watch out for him too.
JUMP CUT Bush (25) came up big against the Cards while Thomas (below) has done the grunt work.