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IN TWO games within six days—a Monday-night loss to the Vikings on Oct. 6 and a resounding win over the Raiders on Sunday—the Saints' Reggie Bush amassed 344 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns: two on punt returns, one on a run from scrimmage and one on a pass reception. His season total of eight TDs is the most in the NFL. Why, then, in the aftermath of New Orleans's 34--3 victory over Oakland at the Superdome, was there the perception that Bush's performance was still lacking? Only 56 of those all-purpose yards came on running plays, a frustrating 2.2 yards per rush on 26 carries. "I'm not a perfect person or a perfect player," said the former Heisman Trophy winner, a hint of resignation in his voice. "People keep saying I can't be an every-down back. But it takes 11 guys for a running game to work. I'm one of 11."
Bush still feels the pressure from the expectation that he would be the next Gale Sayers, the rusher-receiver-returner extraordinaire of the 1960s Bears. At USC, Bush averaged 10.3 yards per touch, including 7.3 yards per rushing attempt, while blowing past and around Pac-10 defenders for three years.
The second pick in the 2006 draft, Bush entered this season averaging a pedestrian 3.7 yards a carry, and the fact that his 2008 average is now down more than a half yard even from that isn't helping him shake his reputation as a gadget player rather than an every-down back.
Bush spent the off-season strengthening his lower body, the better to burst through traffic at the line of scrimmage. But the Saints' young offensive line has proved to be more adept at pass-protecting (Drew Brees has been sacked only six times) than run-blocking. And with a quarterback who's completing 71% of his throws and an offense that's scoring 28 points a game, coach Sean Payton is not going to insist that his backs keep trying to pound the ball inside.
On Sunday night Bush said plaintively, "I'm still a running back at heart," as if he were no longer one in reality. But what Payton has stressed is that Bush shouldn't be judged as running backs normally are and that the Saints will continue to exploit his strength in the open field. Of Bush's 202 career receptions, 94 have been made behind the line of scrimmage—essentially extended handoffs. That's Payton's way of getting Bush the ball in space instead of forcing him into the scrum.
There will always be the expectation that Bush can turn every touch into a game-breaking play. To call him a bust—Bush despises the word—based on how high he was drafted is misguided and wrong. He's an effective situational back and an explosive return man, a player who should give New Orleans 12 to 14 touchdowns a year (he has 23 in 34 career games) as long as he stays healthy. "I'm able to do so much that other backs can't do," Bush says.
Suppose he continues producing at his current pace and ends an 11-year career with 900 receptions and 120 touchdowns. No one will be calling that a wasted No. 2 pick.
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