A couple of weeks ago, one of the Fox Sports Net channels was showing USC legend Reggie Bush's most jawdropping collegiate performance: Nov 19, 2005, versus Fresno State, at the Coliseum, the eleventh game ofReggie's Heisman Trophy-winning junior year. 294 yards rushing on 23 carries with 2 touchdowns. 3 cathes for 68 yards. 135 yards on 7 kickoff returns and another 16 on a punt return. 513 all-purpose yards in a hard fought 50-42 win.
Probably the most indelible highlight from that masterpiece came towards the end of the third quarter, with the Trojans ahead 34-28, when Bush took the handoff from Matt Leinart, dashed through an opening and sprinted to the left side sideline. An inch from steeping out of bounds and with a defender reaching at him, Reggie puts on the breaks for a split second - a split second - puts the ball behind his back and switches field for a long touchdown. We've all seen that play a million times.
On an earlier lengthy run, in which he came within about half a yard from scoring another touchdown, his right long sleeve was ripped as he dove for the goal line, and when he got up he feigned pulling back his jersey to show the figurative 'S' on his chest while pounding on his heart like Kobe Bean. Indeed, he was Superman.
So you can understand why, for the life of me, I can't understand how this guy is only a mediocre NFL running back. I just wanna know why. As I read once on the WWW, Reggie was the best player to ever come out of college, meaning that If you were to take every player who ever entered the draft and retroactively give them a rating - based on how good they were at the time they entered the league - Bush would get the highest score.
Reggie Bush averaged 8.7 yards a carry his junior year at SC, and 9.7 yards a touch. The Human First Down. This was a world class athlete with the vision of LT and the moves of Barry. The evolutionary Gale Sayers. He couldn't miss.
And remember his first preseason game against the Titans, the 42-yard cutback that had everybody gaga? Perhaps no rookie had ever come into the league with more hype. And never has there been a rookie more deserving of such universal laud and adulation. He was that good.
So what happened next? Well, for the most part, he stunk out the joint in the first half of his rookie season. You didn't hear much about it because A) the Saints were winning, and B) nobody had the balls to criticize the great Reggie Bush in plain sight. Instead, everybody talked about how valuable he was as a "decoy."
Was the attention Bush's gamebreaking potential demanded having a large impact on the Saints' success? Absolutely. Was he catching a lot of passes? Sure (even though he had a low YPC). But he was running the ball like suey and he wasn't making any big plays. Through the first eight games of his career, Reggie Bush had zero touchdowns.
He played much better in the second half of the season, tying a franchise record with four touchdowns against the Niners and gaining a career-high 125 yards on the ground against the Cowboys in Dallas. By the end of the season he had set a rookie record for receptions by a running back (88). And 1,523 total yards and 9 touchdowns ain't bad, especially considering his role (although we were definitely expecting more). The Saints went 10-6, won the division, and came within one game of the Super Bowl. And we all remember the 88-yard touchdown in the NFC title game that year, the longest play in that game's history, when he tauntingly pointed at Brian Urlacher before doing his trademark sommersault into the endzone (he was later fined).
So Reggie had his moments, got better as the season went along, and seemed poise for a breakout season in 2007.
Deuce McAllister tore his ACL in the third game of the reason, forcing Reggie to take on more carries, but he couldn't carry the load as his team's feature back (just as everyone predicted when he was drafted - of course, I thought everyone was crazy). He failed to reach 100 yards once in 12 games before missing the last 4 with a knee injury. In the process, some people started calling him overrated. The Texans are no longer considered idiots for passing on him in favor of Mario Williams, who recorded 14 sacks. The entire season was a setback.
So, why has Reggie struggled thus far? For one, while Bush may still be the most gifted athlete in the league, pretty much everyone in the NFL is a special athlete, so that advantage has become almost obsolete. During his rookie year, not only was he the primary focus of the defense from a strategic standpoint, but everybody on the other side of the ball wanted a piece of him. Veteran defensive players were determined to make him earn the publicity and endorsements he was receiving even before he had played a down in their league. Then last year, when McAlister went down, he suddenly began receiving even more defensive attention while assuming more carries, which he wasn't ready for and may never be ready for. Also, I think he needs to slow down - great running backs have great patience, and oftentimes Reggie seems to be going too fast for his own good, as if he's trying to go for the homerun on every attempt.
Also, it has been said that Bush rededicated himself to the game this offseason, and that presents another concern: Just how much does Reggie Bush want to be great? Similar to his buddy Leinart, sometimes it seems that Bush is satisfied with just being Bush, with being a celebrity, with having the time of his life - rather than becoming the best running back he can become. His girlfriend is Playboy model, reality TV star, and dimepiece (sorry, Reg) Kim Kardashian, who once made a sextape that I watch every morning as I'm eating my Cheerios, and they are often photogged out and about, on the scene, two young millionares enjoying the fruits of their fame.
Yet for the guys who are really serious about their craft, the offseason is just an extension of the season, the six months you spend getting better, going from good player to Pro Bowler and Pro Bowler to future Hall-of-Famer. Is Reggie Bush driven to become a legend, to capitalize on his amazing physical gifts, to fulfill the limitless and astounding potential that he showed coming out of Southern Cal? Or is he intent to just be Reggie Bush, former Heisman trophy winner and one of the most famous college athletes ever? These are legitimate questions.
The Saints started camp this week, and Reggie is talking a good game. I hope it's not all talk. I live about 20 minutes away from the USC campus, and you can't understate how important that program is out here, or how much those Bush-Leinart teams transcended sports and became something much more. They were like rock stars, especially Leinart and Bush. Understand: Reggie Bush is an absolute god out here, and Los Angelino's will never forget what he did when he was with the Trojans. Personally, I follow Saints football now, specifically because of him. I want for him to do well.
So here's hoping that Reggie has a breakout year in '08, that the experts were right when they said he would need a couple years to develop, that he's the rare running back that had to grow into and learn his position after being a high draft-pick.
I'm rooting for him.