Selected with the 2nd pick in the 2006 NFL draft, big things were expected out of the Heisman winner from Southern Cal. In the past 30 years, only five running backs had been drafted higher so Saints’ personnel must have envisioned “Gale Sayers-like” potential out of Reggie Bush. But things don’t always pan out as expected and Bush’s career has been “inconsistent” to put it nicely.
Now in his fourth NFL season, Bush’s role in the Saints’ offense has changed from a change-of-pace back in his first three years to more of a novelty player in 2009. He is almost an afterthought in the running game and the stats back that up. Using the help of our friends at ProFootballFocus.com, we can see that Bush has been on the field for 292 snaps which is 38 more than Pierre Thomas and nearly 100 more than Mike Bell thru Week 12. But in those 292 snaps, Bush only has 55 rushing attempts or about 6 per game. Among the NFL halfbacks with at least 275 snaps (34 in total), the only player with fewer rushing attempts than Bush is Kevin Faulk, and I’ll have more on him later. But when Bush has run the ball, his metrics have been downright awful: he is last in the league in yards after contact per attempt which renders him virtually useless in between the tackles. He’s also shown that he’s not very resilient and I’m not just talking about the 12 games missed (and counting) in just four years. For his career, Bush has averaged a respectable 4.2 yards per carry during his first five rushing attempts. From attempts 6-10, his average drops down to 3.9 and then from attempts 11-15 it goes down ever further to a minuscule 2.8 yards per carry. 2.8 yards per carry is what you want out of your fullback, not from the guy who signed a $52 million dollar contract out of college.
It took four years, but Sean Payton has seemed to finally realize that Bush is not the guy to hand the ball off too whenever his starting RB needs a rest. Back when Bush would spell Pierre Thomas or Deuce McAllister, did the Saints ever win anything? They were 19-19 in the games that Bush played before this season and seemed to give him carries only to justify the position he was drafted. Now in 2009 Bush has been relegated to the #3 running back with Mike Bell as the backup. With the Saints being 11-0 this year (9-0 with Bush), do you really think that Payton is going to go back to giving Bush 10+ carries a game considering those poor metrics he’s put out in his career? I don’t think so.
So what do we make of Reggie Bush from this point on? It’s quite obvious that he’s not going to be the next Gale Sayers, Brian Westbrook, or even Charlie Garner. The closest comparables I could think of to Bush were Eric Metcalf and Ronnie Harmon. Both guys were dual-threats who were much more accomplished as receivers than running backs. They also did something that I think Bush will do one day and that is transition from running back to wide receiver. From his days at USC, Bush certainly has the skills to play the position even if it’s only as a slot receiver.
For you young guys who have no clue who Metcalf or Harmon are, think of an old-school (and by old school I mean 80s and 90s) version of Kevin Faulk, who is a current player that Bush can model his game after. While Faulk is a better runner, especially inside the tackles, Bush is the better receiver but both are used in similar fashion. You can see them take a handoff, catch a pass out of the backfield, or line up at receiver. Also, both operate most efficiently when they don’t have to rush the ball more than a handful of times.
Coincidentally Faulk, Harmon, and Metcalf are the only halfbacks in NFL history who have at least 400 receptions but fewer than 1000 rushing attempts. They all have had varying degrees of success in terms of individual accomplishments and achievement of team goals. In 1992, Harmon made the Pro Bowl as a running back not due to his running skills (only 235 rushing yards) but rather due to his receiving skills (914 receiving yards). Faulk has three Super Bowl rings and has more receptions than any running back in Patriots history. Metcalf scored 55 touchdowns in his career and retired with having the ninth most all purpose yards in NFL history. I don’t know which one of these career paths Bush’s will most closely resemble, but I do know one thing: he’ll never live up to the hype he created at USC and that may unfortunately saddle him with the “bust” label simply from being the #2 overall pick.