HAILED AS THE GREATEST COLLEGE OFFENSE OF OUR TIME, THE SWAGGERING 2005 USC TROJANS WERE DESTINED TO PRODUCE A CROP OF NFL GREATS. FUNNY HOW THAT WORKED OUT
Gutted in defeat, spent after playing in one of the most exciting college football games ever, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush gathered themselves and took the high road. Around 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2006, the pair of USC Heisman Trophy winners traversed the innards of the Rose Bowl toward Texas's locker room to congratulate Vince Young.
The Longhorns quarterback had been unhappy about the presumption of a Three-Pete (Trojans coach Pete Carroll was on a quest for his third straight national championship), and he came into the BCS title game with a point to prove. He proved it, passing for 267 yards and running for another 200, and his eight-yard touchdown scramble on fourth-and-five with 19 seconds to play sealed a thrilling 41—38 victory. With that classy drop-by, Bush and Leinart added a note of grace to the night.
These Trojans could afford to be gracious, no? Their next stop would be the first round of the NFL draft, followed, undoubtedly, by future Super Bowls. Sharing at least a piece of this seemingly gleaming future were dozens of teammates: 24 players from that USC team would end up on NFL rosters (page 44).
The world was their oyster. (Or, for Bush, who had already been shopping for agents, the world was his ATM; in 2010, USC was harshly sanctioned by the NCAA, in large part because of improper gifts lavished on Bush and his parents.) The Trojans' offense was widely proclaimed as the best of all time. But it's one thing for media types to engage in such hyperbole. It's quite another when the men who should know better—NFL scouts, coaches and G.M.'s—succumb to it.
That's unquestionably what happened. Personnel types tended to gaze upon members of those dynastic Trojan teams from 2003 to '06 through cardinal-and-gold-tinted glasses. "You don't think you're doing it, but sometimes you subconsciously [escalate a guy's draft stock] based on the strength of the brand," allows one assistant general manager. "[The Trojans] won 34 straight games, they were very well coached, and they ran a pro-style scheme similar to what you see at this level. The runners had good blockers in front of them, the linemen had great backs behind them. The receivers were so talented that the quarterback was throwing into a wide-open window. What you had was a lot of talented guys that played even better than they were."
The USC Derangement Syndrome was on ample display at the 2006 draft, when 11 Trojans were selected, five in the first 45 picks: Bush, the star tailback (No. 2 overall); Leinart, the dashing quarterback (10); Winston Justice, the right tackle (39); Deuce Lutui, the left guard (41); and power back LenDale White (45). Among them, they would make it to zero Pro Bowls. Bush has only once finished better than 38th in the NFL in rushing. Leinart is now on his third team, backing up Carson Palmer in Oakland. After allowing four sacks in his first start for the Eagles, Justice—nicknamed Winston Bustice by unforgiving Philly fans—had nowhere to go but up. Now in Indianapolis, he's developed into what our assistant G.M. describes as "a functional guy; not a solid starter." Lutui, now a Titans backup, was in the news a year ago when he failed a physical with the Bengals. His problem? He, like White, was overweight. Once they left Carroll's nest, many of his players hit the pavement with a resounding thud.
Under the madcap, manic coach, the Trojans had finished as the AP's No. 1 team in 2003, then eviscerated Oklahoma in the BCS title game the following year. By the end of the '05 regular season, they had won 34 straight and were favored to beat Texas in the national title game. Young, of course, had other plans.
In addition to being a defensive wizard and a peerless recruiter, Carroll also trafficked in a kind of alchemy. He was a master not just at bringing in topflight talent, but also in getting the very best out of those four- and five-star studs. Before leaving the team hotel on game days, the Trojans would gather in a meeting room that they quickly turned into a kind of sporting mosh pit—chanting, spinning, dancing—and then board the bus. Before USC's 35—3 win over Ohio State in September 2008, SI sat in on this primal ritual, the purpose of which was to reinforce bonds and eliminate doubt.
"You've done everything we've asked of you to this point," Carroll told his charges, "and we trust you. Don't hold anything back. You don't have to be cautious. Play the game like you know you can. Count on it. Trust it."
When those teams got on a roll, the Trojans did trust one another, and they held nothing back. The most talented team in the country was greater than the sum of its parts. And for a lot of guys, that was as good as it got.
Of course there were outliers—Trojans from that era who went on to kill it in the league. Defensive linemen Keneche Udeze (the 20th pick in 2004) and the vending-machine-shaped Mike Patterson (No. 31 in '05) were terrific NFL players whose careers were cut short by freak medical conditions. Despite Carroll's exhortations for him to stay in school, Lofa Tatupu entered the '05 draft as a junior, was snatched in the second round by the Seahawks and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three years in the league.
But a review of USC players taken during that four-year stretch yields far more bust than boom. Witness offensive tackle Jacob Rogers, a second-round pick of the Cowboys in 2004 who never played an offensive snap and was released 15 months later. And if he was a disappointment, then the Trojans' receiving corps formed a collective calamity.
The leading pass catcher on the 2005 team, rangy, sure-handed sophomore Dwayne Jarrett, hauled in a preposterous 91 balls for 1,274 yards, including 16 touchdowns. Jarrett succeeded Mike Williams, who left school, against NFL rules, following a dominant sophomore season. Two years after the Lions took him with the 10th pick in the '05 draft, he was traded to the Raiders after having grabbed just 37 passes. One year after catching what should have been the game-winning touchdown against Texas, Jarrett was the Panthers' second-round pick. Inactive for most of the first two months of his rookie season, he finally got on the field when injury struck Keary Colbert—himself another second-round pick out of USC who made little pro impact. But if Colbert's career sputtered to a close, then Jarrett's flamed out spectacularly. When the team gave up on him in October '10, he had caught just 35 passes and had more DUI arrests (two) than touchdowns (one).
"You look at most of these guys that didn't work out, and a lot of it has to do with intangibles," says the assistant G.M., referring to qualities like discipline, character and the ability to keep one's name off a police blotter.
He would seem to be referring to LenDale White, a scintillating talent who scored 56 touchdowns for the Trojans but tumbled out of the first round when he showed up at the NFL combine looking as ripped as George Costanza in the Seinfeld episode in which he comes out of the powder room at a party without a shirt. Says the assistant G.M., "He looked like a guy who hadn't done much to prepare for the biggest job interview in his life."
"He couldn't have looked that bad," counters another prominent collegiate running back who played in L.A. at the time, " 'cause he got picked higher than me."
Maurice Jones-Drew and Reggie Bush spent the same three college years in Los Angeles, from 2003 to '05. At UCLA, Jones-Drew didn't just play in Bush's shadow—he was totally eclipsed by it. These days, the 5'7" Jones-Drew casts the shadow. He rushed for 1,606 yards with the Jaguars last season, tops in the NFL. In addition to being durable and multitalented (descriptors rarely used on Bush), the three-time All-Pro is grounded and compassionate (ditto); and yes, he agrees that his old friend and rival wasn't an ideal fit with the Saints, who drafted Bush before dealing him to Miami, essentially in exchange for a reserve safety, following the 2010 season. "Reggie's a good dude," he says. "I hope he gets the touches [in Miami] to show what he can do."
How the worm has turned. On April 23, 2005, Jones-Drew went to Jacksonville 58 picks after Bush; plenty of experts were surprised to see MJD go that high. Now what's surprising is that the Bruin is the feature back (with 7,262 rushing yards and 75 touchdowns), while the Trojan spent the first five years of his career relegated to spot duty (3,593 and 43). So specific was Bush's specialty as an outside threat during his five years with the Saints that five other New Orleans backs totaled at least 100 carries apiece in that time.
But that performance gap between Jones-Drew and Bush is finally starting to narrow as Bush enjoys a modest renaissance. After passing the millennium mark as a rusher (1,086) for the first time in his career in 2011, he's bolted to a quick start this season, gashing defenses for 417 yards (nine more than Jones-Drew, with one more touchdown) in Miami's first five games.
Those Dolphins who last year expected a prima donna, who knew him only from episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, have been pleasantly surprised by Bush, who appears humbled by his early pro failures. He earned their respect by outworking them, staying late after practice to pull a weighted sled or to hone his receiving routes.
Asked for his theory on why so many ex-Trojans flopped as pros, he sticks to this subject of sweat equity. "I think it comes down to work ethic and how much guys want it, how hard they train, how much they put into it," Bush says. "Game play is one thing, but if you look at how a guy conducts himself on and off the field, you'll find out a lot about him."
He has little sympathy for ex-teammates who abetted their NFL demises by acting like entitled idiots. Jarrett springs to mind, as does White, who had a chance to revive his career in Seattle in 2010 until news broke that he'd failed an NFL drug test and would be suspended for the first four games of the season. Not long after, the Seahawks released him.
Beyond his change in attitude, Bush has noticeably altered his game, going from a contact-averse finesse scatback to a guy who earns his living in the trenches. The sweeps that sprung him in college don't cut it in the NFL. "Everyone in the league is fast," explains Bush. "I've found that I can actually use my speed more effectively between the tackles. When defenders are around blocks, you're by 'em in a split second. When you get to that third level, all you've got to do is make a safety miss, then you're off to the races."
More remarkable than Bush's mid-career revival, really, is the fact that he ever got to this point. The cold truth: The second pick of 2006, a back who made $8 million two years ago, has until recently been a major disappointment as a pro. Even more jarring: Compared with the truncated NFL careers of many of his USC teammates, Bush's seven NFL seasons have been downright Payton-esque.
Sitting on a Rubbermaid storage unit outside of the Raiders' locker room following a practice last week, Matt Leinart offers a cheerful greeting to a reporter whom he hasn't seen in six years. His smile is no less dazzling than remembered, but there's also a new humility behind it. In six NFL seasons he's started just 18 games, mostly for the Cardinals, and he's thrown five more picks (20) than touchdown passes (15). His career quarterback rating is an underwhelming 71.6. Even when things looked as if they might go well, they haven't. Late last season, with starter Matt Schaub sidelined by a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, Leinart was poised to take the Texans deep into the playoffs. In Week 12 he got the nod against the Jaguars, and he completed 10 of his first 13 passes, including a 20-yard score to Joel Dreessen—but a snapped left collarbone put an end to the excitement. Thomas Mattingly, the Apollo 13 astronaut who was told that he couldn't go to the moon because he'd been exposed to the measles, could not have been more disappointed than Leinart, postfracture.
"I was on a great team, poised for a perfect opportunity," he says. "And all of a sudden it was gone."
Now he's on a bad team, the 1—3 Raiders, helping Carson Palmer digest first-year coordinator Greg Knapp's version of the West Coast offense. "There are gonna be times when the backup's gotta play, and that's something I take pride in," he says. "I believe I can play, and start."
A dwindling number of people share that belief. "I don't know if he has enough arm, enough athletic ability to move around in the pocket," says one AFC scout. "He's probably a really good backup quarterback at this point." Then a pause. "I shouldn't say really good. I think he's a good backup."
So, how did he get to this place—a Heisman winner and former first-round pick carrying a clipboard—so soon? "The knock on him was arm strength," recalls the assistant G.M. "Could he drive the ball down the field at this level? And mobility was a concern." Clearly those concerns were easy to overlook, what with the gaudy college numbers, the pro system at USC and all of those wins. "[People] thought maybe he had the It factor," says the executive, whose tone makes clear that he no longer holds that belief.
Asked for his theory on why so many fellow Trojans bombed in the NFL, Leinart is circumspect. Many of the washouts left college early, he notes. Probably too early. "I became a much better quarterback from my junior to my senior seasons," he says. "Some guys may have benefited from another year on campus."
All of Oakland's players have left the practice field by now. The sprinklers are on. Leinart seems happy to sit and reminisce about the glory days, which he calls "magical." He remembers standing under center on fourth-and-nine with 1:32 remaining against Notre Dame in October 2005, the Streak on the line. He remembers the 61-yard pass to Jarrett that set up his own game-winning sneak, the controversial Bush Push. And he vividly remembers his touchdown pass to Jarrett, a year earlier in the Orange Bowl: "They brought a corner blitz, and he ran a straight go route. The safety had a bad angle, and I just chucked it."
Just chucked it, eh?
Oklahoma had a mouthy defensive end that year named Larry Birdine, who'd told reporters before the game that Leinart was "definitely overrated."
The media gasped. As USC was rolling to a 55—19 win, Trojans tight end Alex Holmes asked Birdine, on the field. "Is he still overrated?" Afterward, a football nation laughed aloud.
It sure doesn't seem as funny today.
USC's 2005 offense has had a few studs but more also-rans in the NFL
1 QB Matt Leinart
Backup for Oakland, his third team. 18 career starts; 15 TD passes, 20 INTs.
2 RB Reggie Bush
Won Super Bowl ring with N.O.; 1,086 rush yards for Miami in '11 nearly doubled previous high.
3 FB David Kirtman
Zero carries in two NFL seasons. Now lives in Japan, working as a trader for Merrill Lynch.
4 WR Steve Smith
Super Bowl champion with Giants; career-high 107 receptions in '09. Now a Rams backup.
5 WR Dwayne Jarrett
35 catches in four years for Carolina. Comeback in CFL failed this summer.
6 TE Dominique Byrd
Six career catches for four NFL teams. Signed with Sacramento of UFL in '12.
7 LT Sam Baker
First-round pick in '08 is a four-year starter for 5—0 Falcons.
8 LG Deuce Lutui
41st overall pick in '06 started 72 games in six years with Arizona; now a Titans backup.
9 C Ryan Kalil
Panthers second-rounder ('07) has made three straight Pro Bowls and is highest-paid center in NFL history.
10 RG Fred Matua
Played for six NFL and UFL teams; died of heart-related ailment in August.
11 RT Winston Justice
Memorably allowed four sacks in first NFL start for Eagles; now a Colts starter.
12 RB LenDale White
Rushed for 1,110 yards in '07 and 15 TDs in '08 but played just one more year. Failed drug test in '10.
13 WR Chris McFoy
Spent one season with Raiders after going undrafted. Now works for Bay Area insurance agency.
Where the Pros Were
The 2005 Trojans may have seemed loaded with NFL-ready talent, but other teams fared better when it came to producing quality pros. SI analyzed the first- through third-round draft picks from teams appearing in the BCS title game since 2000 and ranked those teams based on the cumulative per-season average of their draftees' Approximate Value (AV) rating on ProFootballReference.com.