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Asked for his theory on why so many ex-Trojans flopped as pros, he sticks to this subject of sweat equity. "I think it comes down to work ethic and how much guys want it, how hard they train, how much they put into it," Bush says. "Game play is one thing, but if you look at how a guy conducts himself on and off the field, you'll find out a lot about him."
He has little sympathy for ex-teammates who abetted their NFL demises by acting like entitled idiots. Jarrett springs to mind, as does White, who had a chance to revive his career in Seattle in 2010 until news broke that he'd failed an NFL drug test and would be suspended for the first four games of the season. Not long after, the Seahawks released him.
Beyond his change in attitude, Bush has noticeably altered his game, going from a contact-averse finesse scatback to a guy who earns his living in the trenches. The sweeps that sprung him in college don't cut it in the NFL. "Everyone in the league is fast," explains Bush. "I've found that I can actually use my speed more effectively between the tackles. When defenders are around blocks, you're by 'em in a split second. When you get to that third level, all you've got to do is make a safety miss, then you're off to the races."
More remarkable than Bush's mid-career revival, really, is the fact that he ever got to this point. The cold truth: The second pick of 2006, a back who made $8 million two years ago, has until recently been a major disappointment as a pro. Even more jarring: Compared with the truncated NFL careers of many of his USC teammates, Bush's seven NFL seasons have been downright Payton-esque.
Sitting on a Rubbermaid storage unit outside of the Raiders' locker room following a practice last week, Matt Leinart offers a cheerful greeting to a reporter whom he hasn't seen in six years. His smile is no less dazzling than remembered, but there's also a new humility behind it. In six NFL seasons he's started just 18 games, mostly for the Cardinals, and he's thrown five more picks (20) than touchdown passes (15). His career quarterback rating is an underwhelming 71.6. Even when things looked as if they might go well, they haven't. Late last season, with starter Matt Schaub sidelined by a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, Leinart was poised to take the Texans deep into the playoffs. In Week 12 he got the nod against the Jaguars, and he completed 10 of his first 13 passes, including a 20-yard score to Joel Dreessen—but a snapped left collarbone put an end to the excitement. Thomas Mattingly, the Apollo 13 astronaut who was told that he couldn't go to the moon because he'd been exposed to the measles, could not have been more disappointed than Leinart, postfracture.
"I was on a great team, poised for a perfect opportunity," he says. "And all of a sudden it was gone."
Now he's on a bad team, the 1—3 Raiders, helping Carson Palmer digest first-year coordinator Greg Knapp's version of the West Coast offense. "There are gonna be times when the backup's gotta play, and that's something I take pride in," he says. "I believe I can play, and start."
A dwindling number of people share that belief. "I don't know if he has enough arm, enough athletic ability to move around in the pocket," says one AFC scout. "He's probably a really good backup quarterback at this point." Then a pause. "I shouldn't say really good. I think he's a good backup."
So, how did he get to this place—a Heisman winner and former first-round pick carrying a clipboard—so soon? "The knock on him was arm strength," recalls the assistant G.M. "Could he drive the ball down the field at this level? And mobility was a concern." Clearly those concerns were easy to overlook, what with the gaudy college numbers, the pro system at USC and all of those wins. "[People] thought maybe he had the It factor," says the executive, whose tone makes clear that he no longer holds that belief.
Asked for his theory on why so many fellow Trojans bombed in the NFL, Leinart is circumspect. Many of the washouts left college early, he notes. Probably too early. "I became a much better quarterback from my junior to my senior seasons," he says. "Some guys may have benefited from another year on campus."