New Orleans Saints are learning lessons about using Reggie Bush

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune November 28, 2008 11:33PM

The Saints’ offense has gotten along just fine during Reggie Bush’s four-game hiatus due to a knee injury.

The education of Reggie Bush continued this week. In his rookie season, the Saints’ ultra-back learned he couldn’t outrun NFL defenders the way he did at Southern Cal.Last season he learned how to run between the tackles, to wait on blocks to develop, and trust the scheme.

This season Bush is learning another facet of Advanced NFL Running 101: How to play with pain.

Bush has missed the past four games as he recovers from arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee.

The surgery took place Oct. 20. Initially, team officials projected a two-to-four-week recovery time for the injury and indeed Bush himself predicted he’d play in both the Chiefs and Packers games.

Bush has watched the Saints’ two-game winning streak from the sideline, bedeviling his fantasy football owners along the way.

He said the decision to not play against Green Bay was “a mutual thing” between he and Coach Sean Payton.

“I didn’t feel like I could be me and be 100 percent, and I would be hurting the team, ” Bush said.

Bush is right in one respect. He’s not like most players. His effectiveness is based almost entirely on speed and cutting ability. If he can’t cut, juke or sprint, he’s useless.

And Bush isn’t shy about expressing his feelings about it. He’s made it clear the past few weeks that he isn’t about to play at anything less than 100 percent, explaining he needs to make a wise “business” decision.

This week Bush once again declared his intention to play.

“I know I said that last week, ” said Bush, who again was limited in practice Friday. “But it’s definitely a go this week.”

Asked if he was certain he’d be the Bush of old this week, Bush said “I wouldn’t be playing this game if I wasn’t . . . 100 percent certain I’ll be able to do everything that I was doing before I was injured.”

He added, “These last two years have been tough, just from trying to fight this injury bug. I obviously don’t want to be known as the guy who’s always injured.”

Bush better get used to it. Injuries are part of the game, especially at running back, where the average tenure is 3 1/2 seasons.

Bush need only look around him for evidence. Aaron Stecker, who dresses in the locker next to him, is out for the season with a torn hamstring. Next to Stecker, Deuce McAllister soldiers through pain on a pair of surgically repaired knees. Next to Deuce, fullback Mike Karney has missed the past two weeks with a right knee injury.

And Bush, with his slight build and heavy workload, might be more vulnerable than any of them.

Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, the man Bush is most often compared to, has endured a similar fate throughout his career. His injury history includes abdominal, knee, foot, rib, chest, triceps and wrist ailments.

Former Saints coach Jim Haslett used to say the NFL isn’t a league for little guys.

“They’re always going to be nicked up, ” Haslett said.

Bush has now been “nicked” each of the past two seasons. Each time he loses a fraction of the speed and elusiveness that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2006 NFL draft. It’s this very scenario that caused some NFL experts to question Bush’s effectiveness as an NFL feature back before the draft that year.

“More may be less and less could be more with Reggie, ” Cleveland Browns General Manager Phil Savage notably said that spring. “If they utilize him in the right way, he can still be a Heisman Trophy winner at the pro level, even if he’s touching the ball 10 or 15 times a game. At his size, carrying it 20 or 25 times a game for 16 games, I think that’s almost an impossibility for somebody to do that.”

Hopefully Bush, as well as the Saints, have learned this lesson.

Despite predictions to the contrary, the Saints have fared quite nicely without Bush. They’ve averaged 425.3 yards in the 4 1/2 contests they’ve played without him. In the 6 1/2 games with him, their average is 411.07.

The same thing happened last season when Bush was sidelined for the final four games with a knee injury.

In fact, the past two seasons the Saints are 5-3 in games without Bush and 8-11 with him.

Bush’s absence the past month has opened the door for players like Lance Moore and Pierre Thomas to step into leading roles. Now Payton has the dicey challenge of working Bush back into the rotation without upsetting the momentum of his high-powered attack, which is firing on all cylinders.

As Payton formulates the plan, he’d be wise to heed Savage’s advice.

With Bush, less is definitely more.

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