Not only does the 29-year-old Bush have limited wear and tear for his age, but he also shares the Detroit backfield with a legitimate between-the-tackles runner, and he is now returning to an offense that knows how best to use him. The combination of these three elements should mean Bush produces another good season or two for the potentially explosive Lions offense.
A high percentage of NFL running backs face rapid decline when creeping toward the age of 30. Either early overuse or an accumulation of injuries can cause significant and irreversible physical deterioration, which predictably leads to lessened production on the field. The recent numbers paint a somber picture: Since 2009, or a span of five years, only eight running backs age 29 or older have rushed for 1,000 yards in a single season. The other 68 1,000-yard seasons over that five-year period came from backs 28 or younger.
Bush may be one of the rare backs to stay healthy and productive even as the calendar pages flip.
Despite playing in 105 games since being drafted in 2006, Bush has just 1,190 total carries. He's 12th among active running backs in attempts, but even that ranking is a little misleading. Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Ray Rice, three backs drafted a full two years after Bush, have more carries. Bush also has just 41 more career carries than LeSean McCoy, who was drafted in 2009.
Adrian Peterson, who has played in two fewer games than Bush, has almost 900 more carries.
While Bush does have 426 career receptions, he's mostly avoided the major pounding most at his position face year in and year out. His eight NFL seasons have produced just three years with 200 or more carries, and Bush has yet to crack the 250-carry mark for one season in his career.
His specialized usage has helped Bush avoid both major injury (he's played at least 14 games in four of the last five seasons) and any obvious physical regression.
“I’m pretty excited about where he is physically,’’ new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said, via Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press. “You haven’t been around a guy for a few years and he seems like the same kind of burst and quickness that I remember.’’
Bush has always been one of the NFL's true quick-twitch athletes. He put together a never-ending highlight reel of weaving, cutting and dodging his way around tacklers while at USC, and those freakish attributes have mostly translated to the professional game. No longer can he simply outrun a defender to the sidelines, but few in the NFL are more dangerous in space than Bush.
Back in Week 1 of last season, Bush showed just how explosive he can be in the open field:
The play was a rather simple one, with Bush veering inside to catch a designed screen pass underneath the coverage on 3rd-and-long. He receives one good block as the ball is arriving and another on linebacker Erin Henderson to open an alley. Bush shows off his incredible wheels the second the hole opens, beating safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to the spot and then outrunning cornerback Chris Cook to the end zone.
And don't tell Bush he's lost any of his signature moves.
Watch the set of jukes he put on the Chicago Bears defense in Week 4 last season:
Bush's lateral quickness makes a mockery of Chris Conte's tackle attempt in the hole. Conte had come down to fill against the run perfectly, but he wouldn't have gotten Bush down even if the game had been two-hand touch. Major Wright is up next, and Bush makes quick work of him with a quick cut to the outside. The result is 17 yards, two embarrassed Bears safeties and one Lions first down.
It did not look as if Bush had lost a step during his eighth NFL season.
The stats back up what he put on tape in 2013. Over 14 appearances, he produced seven games with at least 80 or more rushing yards and 11 plays over 20 yards. His 1,512 yards from scrimmage were eighth in the NFL. Bush has plenty left in his legs.
Playing in an offense he's comfortable in should also help steady his production, even if it comes in a different form.
A former offensive coach in New Orleans, Lombardi is bringing major components of the Saints offense to Detroit, where Bush, Calvin Johnson, Joique Bell, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron are expected to provide Matthew Stafford with the type of weapons Drew Brees has worked with for so long in the Big Easy.
The two offenses figure to operate similarly, according to Bush.
“I played in the system five years in New Orleans so all the terminology is pretty much the same for me,’’ Bush said, via Pasche.
Bush may not crack 1,000 rushing yards in his new offense, but he'll still be heavily used.
Over his five seasons in New Orleans (2006-10; Lombardi was with the Saints from 2007-13), Bush caught 243 passes, or 59 per season. He averaged 4.9 per game, which extrapolates out to just over 78 over a 16-game schedule. Twice, Bush caught more than 70 in a season.
The Saints didn't overuse Bush in the running game, mostly because New Orleans didn't need to. He averaged just 105 carries per season and 8.7 attempts per game from 2006-10, while others—such as Deuce McAllister, Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Chris Ivory—carried the load in the running game.
Bush has proved his value as a runner since leaving New Orleans. Over his last three seasons (two in Miami, one in Detroit), Bush has averaged 222 carries and 1,026 yards, with a solid per-carry average of 4.6.
|Reggie Bush: Rushing Stats, 2011-13|
Lombardi will almost certainly use Bush more in the running game now than his former staff did in New Orleans. But expecting another season of 200 or more carries might be a stretch for Bush, who may be better suited for 150-175 attempts but with an uptick in receptions.
Last season, Bush caught 54 passes for 506 yards. He averaged 3.9 receptions per game. He could easily catch 70 or more passes in 2014. Both Thomas and Sproles caught more than 70 with the Saints last season.
The Lions can afford to tone down Bush's carries because of the presence of Bell, a tough and physical runner who thrives between the tackles. The Lions' ability to give Bell the hard carries could add years to Bush's production potential.
The 5'11", 220-pound Bell has just 248 career attempts. He rushed 166 times for 650 yards and eight scores in 2013, but it would likely take an injury for Bell to not eclipse last season's rushing total in 2014.
The Lions gave Bell a three-year, $9.8 million extension this offseason. The telling part of the deal was the $4.3 million guaranteed, which was more than what Detroit gave Bush a year before. Money almost always talks in the NFL, making it likely that the Lions are planning on giving Bell a bigger workload in 2014.
In fact, it's very easy to envision Lombardi using Bush in a Sproles-like role, with Bell as Detroit's version of Pierre Thomas.
The result for Bush is likely to be a reduced role in the run game but with more opportunities in space in the passing game and a longer life span in the NFL. It's a smart and reasonable trade-off for a player who showed last season that he still has plenty to offer.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.