For all the knocks on Reggie Bush, his dazzling performance against the Vikings on Monday, and his overall performance this season, have given those who like his game some well-needed ammunition.
With Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey out of the lineup for parts of the early season, the Saints have utilized Bush even more as a receiver this season. As a result, he leads the league in receptions (38) and has produced five plays over 20 yards in the passing game. He also leads the league in touchdowns (six) and sports a ridiculous 29.0 yard punt return average. While critics will point to his continuing struggles as a runner, it is impossible to deny that Bush ranks as one of the league's top playmakers.
"Everyone wants him to be an every down back," said an NFC personnel director. "But he never played that role in college. Pete [Carroll] would give him 15 or so touches, and he would be ultra-productive in that capacity. He has shown the same ability as a pro, but people fail to appreciate his ability to impact the game in a variety of ways."
Toward that end, Bush is a lot like former running back/receiver/kick returner Eric Metcalf, who ranks second on the all time list with 12 return touchdowns. The 13th pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 1989 draft, Metcalf never developed into a full-time running back in his 13-year career, but he earned three Pro Bowl berths as a returner and earned a reputation as one of the top multi-purpose players to play the game.
However, some scouts envisioned Bush developing into an offensive weapon in the mold of Brian Westbrook. The Eagles' explosive playmaker didn't top the 1,000-yard rushing mark until his fifth season, but has averaged 75 receptions and 123.8 yards from scrimmage since becoming a full-time starter in 2004. Westbrook's 6,768 yards from scrimmage rank second to only LaDainian Tomlinson's during that same span. Bush, now in his third season, has career numbers well off that pace (86 yard a game from scrimmage in 33 games). And while Bush possesses comparable skills to Westbrook, he lacks the size to run relentlessly between the tackles. In the first 33 games of his career, Bush has rushed for only 1,358 yards on 376 attempts (3.6 avg.) and has only had one 100-yard rushing game. That's why some scouts label him a disappointment.
"He has not lived up to all of the hype," said an AFC scout of the second overall pick in the 2006 draft and the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner as a junior with USC. "He was supposed to be a dynamic playmaker capable of changing the game, but he hasn't really made that type of impact."
"He is a good player," said an AFC personnel director. "He is just not a dominating every down back. He is an off-tackle, space player. He has not been as productive as everyone has hoped, but he still has been a major factor."
Despite having meager numbers as a rusher, Bush's 199 receptions are the most of any player in NFL history during their first three seasons, and his 88 receptions as a rookie established a new NFL record for rookie running backs. In addition, Bush has four punt return touchdowns in his career, including his league-leading three punt return touchdowns this year.
People can continue to criticize his game if they so choose, but they should be very careful about using the bust label.
Clinton Portis' return to top running back status may be due to Jim Zorn shifting the Redskins' running game to a left-handed approach. Zorn, who witnessed three-time Pro Bowl running back Shaun Alexander rack up monstrous rushing totals in Seattle behind fellow Pro Bowlers Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, has designed the Redskins' rushing attack to run primarily behind Pro Bowl left tackle ChrisSamuels and left guard Pete Kendall with outstanding success.
Portis has topped the 100-yard mark in three of the Redskins' first five games, and his 4.5 yards per carry average is his best since arriving in Washington. In addition, Portis has broken off four runs over 20 yards this season, and is on pace to surpass his Redskins' single-season high of eight, set in 2005.
In studying the 'Skins' four-game winning streak, I noticed that each of their pressure situation runs have started on the left side, including the game-clinching fourth-and-one draw play that sealed the victory over the Eagles. Obviously, Samuels and Kendall excel at moving defenders off the ball. Their ability to create a push along the line provides Portis with enough room to pick up the necessary yardage, but there's another reason the left is advantageous for the 'Skins. It's that most defenses place their best pass rusher at right defensive end, and few pass rushers are equally adept at stopping the run.
The philosophical change has helped the 'Skins field the league's fifth-best rushing attack, and the synergy between Portis and the left side of the line has helped the team reel off four consecutive wins.
Of all of the young receivers making their case to be the next great one, Greg Jennings is creating the most buzz. The third-year pro leads the league in receiving yards (569) and ranks seventh in receptions (29). He already has four receptions over 40 yards and has supplanted Donald Driver as the top receiver in the Packers' lineup.
"He is an outstanding player," said an AFC personnel director. "He has a great skill set, and is in the ideal offense to put up big numbers."
Jennings, the Packers' second-round pick in 2006, cracked the lineup early in his rookie season and began establishing himself as one of the league's top big-play receivers. After a solid rookie season, Jennings finished 2007 with 12 touchdowns, including six over 40 yards, and sported an impressive 17.4 yards-per-catch average. While it would be easy to classify Jennings as solely a deep threat, that would overlook his skills as an all-around receiver.
"He is very good," said an NFC personnel director."He has good hands, and is an excellent runner after the catch. Plus, he has the toughness that is necessary in that offense."
Another NFC scout added, "The kid can really run, and is a good vertical route runner."
Jennings has been nothing short of sensational this season, topping the 100-yard receiving mark in three of the team's five games. He has developed into first-year starter Aaron Rodgers' favorite target, and his ability to run after the catch gives the Packers' offense an added dimension. With team heading into a tough stretch in its schedule (games against the Seahawks, Colts, Titans, Vikings and Bears), the Packers will need Jennings to continue his torrid pace as they fight for a postseason berth.
As a "great" receiver, Jennings should be able to carry his team to higher heights, and this five-game stretch will him give him ample opportunity to prove it.