Saints Are Rolling the Dice If They Keep Using Bush This Much
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The New Orleans Saints expect Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back they chose with the second pick in April’s draft, to be the face of their franchise for the next decade. But if they want to keep him upright for that long, they need to rethink how they are going to use him.
In his debut on Sunday, Bush got the ball 25 times — he had 14 rushing attempts for 61 yards, eight catches for 58 yards, and three punt returns for 22 yards. A rookie gaining 141 combined yards in his first NFL game is an impressive feat, but those 25 touches put him on pace for 400 over the course of the season — and that’s a workload that could put too much stress on Bush’s wiry 203-pound frame.
At USC, Bush was not an every-down back — splitting carries with LenDale White, now a rookie with the Tennessee Titans. Bush was an integral part of the Trojans’ offense with 283 touches in 13 games as a junior last season, but White carried the ball only three fewer times than Bush, and in the short-yardage situations that can take a heavy toll on a running back’s body, White almost always got the ball.
In a sense, the Saints, who will play the Green Bay Packers Sunday before returning to the Superdome in New Orleans for the first time in more than a year next Monday night, seem to be cognizant of the need to use Bush the way USC used him and preserve his career. Coach Sean Payton plans to share Bush’s workload with veteran running back Deuce McAllister, who had 22 carries for 90 yards Sunday. But when McAllister got the ball, Bush didn’t get any rest, instead lining up as a receiver. Bush and McAllister were on the field together on most of the Saints’ offensive plays. Quarterback Drew Brees threw 10 passes to Bush and he caught eight, making him the Saints’ leading receiver. Receivers generally don’t take the kind of physical punishment that running backs do, but on Sunday Cleveland’s defensive backs often hit Bush at the line of scrimmage as soon as he began running his route. If other teams emulate that, Bush will get hit even when he doesn’t touch the ball.
By having him catch passes and contribute on special teams, Payton is using Bush in a multifaceted role similar to how the Giants used Tiki Barber early in his career. Payton was a Giants assistant from 1999 to 2002, when Barber caught passes, returned kicks, and served as a part-time running back. Barber didn’t have Bush’s workload, though. He never had 400 touches until 2005 — which might explain why he’s still going strong at age 31, when most running backs have slowed down.
The major difference between Barber and Bush is that Barber was a secondround pick making a relatively small salary, while Bush is the second overall pick in the draft with a $25 million signing bonus and the burden of being the biggest star on a team that desperately needs to attract a fan base after Hurricane Katrina. The Saints have too much of their future invested in Bush to make him a role player.
They also have too much invested to get Bush hurt, which is why the best move the Saints could make would be to use him on offense the way they did in the opener, but take him off punt-return duty. Because punt returners have to look up at the ball, they often take punishing hits that they don’t see coming. Players on opposing teams know they can get on SportsCenter by drilling the league’s newest star on punt coverage, so Bush is due to take a lot of shots. During the preseason Payton was so concerned about injury that he told Bush he had to call a fair catch on every punt he fielded. Now it’s the regular season, and Payton wants to see everything Bush can do. That might include some exciting punt returns, but the Saints will be better off if he is used in moderation.