NFC South: Pete Maravich

 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US Presswire
  Versatile running back Reggie Bush may be ahead of his time.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- As obvious as it is, do not take the easy way out and compare Reggie Bush to Deuce McAllister.

They are not the same guy.

If you still want to compare Bush to someone, stay in the Gulf Coast region, but switch sports. Think basketball. Think Pete Maravich.

Think about guys who were, depending how you look at it, either on the cutting edge or ahead of their times. About 40 years and a sport apart, Bush and Maravich might have a lot more in common than you think.

I picked up a copy of Mark Kriegel's fine book "Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich'' in the Tampa airport before I flew to New Orleans for Saints minicamp last week. I was somewhat intrigued because I have some vague memories of Maravich playing in the NBA in the mid-1970s when I first became interested in sports. I kind of recalled that Maravich had been a pretty good player at Louisiana State.

Kriegel filled me in on the rest and it was a lot. The short version of it is that, back in the late 1960s, Maravich introduced basketball to a region that only had known football. Maravich made passes behind his back, dribbled between his legs and averaged around 45 points in his college career. He set himself up for a high draft selection and a contract that seemed absurd at the time. Although Maravich had a very good NBA career (including a stint with the New Orleans Jazz), the tragic undertone of the book is that he was born 10 or 15 years too soon.

The suggestion is, had Maravich played in the NBA in the glory days of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, his talents might have been fully appreciated because they would have fit the time frame. Instead, Maravich never quite lived up to the hype and expectations that followed him out of college.

That's where Bush comes in. When he came out of USC as the No. 2 overall pick in 2006, the natural assumption was that Bush would run for 1,500 yards a season because that's what great running backs are supposed to do. Instead, Bush has run for 1,550 yards -- in three seasons.

But let's not go calling Bush a "bust" because he hasn't run for 1,500 yards a season. There's still time for him to be a whole lot more.

"I think the direction where the NFL is headed toward, you don't see those type of running backs anymore,'' Bush said between minicamp practices Saturday. "You see guys splitting time. Guys who are able to play running back and multiple positions. I think those days of the one-running back system are over.''

Think about it a bit and look around the NFL. The days of the Saints giving the ball to McAllister up the gut 25 or 30 times a game are over in New Orleans. They may be over in a lot of places. Look at Carolina's "Double Trouble'' with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart or Tennessee's "Smash and Dash'' with LenDale White and Chris Johnson.

Maybe Bush is right. Maybe this is a turning point in the NFL, a time when running backs don't have to fit the profile of Earl Campbell or Jerome Bettis.

"I hear it debated about because I think the framework of how people try to fix the position and we don't have to worry about that,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Since he's been here, we've changed a lot in how we move the football. The most important thing is, are we scoring points and are we moving the football? If the answer is yes to that and he's a big part of that, then all that other stuff will sort itself out.''

There are some people who will say Bush isn't a true running back and can't run between the tackles. Let's get this out of the way now because Bush resents that.

"I can run the ball between the tackles,'' Bush said. "Anybody can run the ball between the tackles. I don't feel like that is going to make me or break me. I don't feel like running the ball between the tackles is going to win us the Super Bowl or help me win the MVP. It's being versatile, being able to run the ball between the tackles, outside the tackles, returning punts, catching the ball out of the backfield and catching the ball down the field. That's what I do. That's who I am.''

Maybe, just maybe, Bush realizes who he is before the rest of the world. He's right about the versatility thing. Think about it -- there have been running backs who could catch the ball out of the backfield (LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk for example) and running backs who could return punts (Gale Sayers).

But has there ever been a running back who could line up at receiver and beat just about any cornerback in the league, who could return two punts (almost three in one half against Minnesota last year) and run inside and outside the tackles?

Go ahead and say Bush is less than a running back. I say he's more than a running back.

Give him a full and healthy season. Bush missed six games last year and four in 2007 because of injury. As a rookie, he sat a lot because of McAllister.

"(The coaches) know I can run the ball between the tackles,'' Bush said. "That's not a question. It's just a matter of me staying healthy. I think that's more of the question.''

Give him a full season of Pierre Thomas sharing the duties at running back. Give him a full season with quarterback Drew Brees. Give him a full season with Payton, who just might be the most progressive offensive mind in the league. And give him a season where the New Orleans' defense gets off the field every now and then.

Let it all come together and let Bush be Bush. Maybe then Bush can avoid the same fate as Maravich. Maybe Bush isn't too late or too early. Maybe Bush has arrived at just the right time to redefine the game.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider