We are a society of comparisons, which is why Reggie Bush represents a national crisis. Frankly, we don't know what to do with him. Everybody has to be somebody else, and this guy just won't play along. Bush defies comparison and category, leaving us lost. It's a combination of our obsession with prediction and the comfort of believing that everything we're seeing is a version of something we've seen before. But we're all alone on this one, with just our eyes and our brains. Sadly, we don't have much imagination.
It's easy to say that the former USC tailback/receiver/returner is a taller, thinner and faster LaDainian Tomlinson, or a smaller, faster, more elusive Bo Jackson. But it doesn't really advance anything except our own limitations. He's a little of this guy and a little more of this other guy and did we mention Gale Sayers?
The concept of NEXT is to find the athlete who furthers the species, a performer whose incandescence beams itself beyond the bounds of convention. Nobody, not even Vince Young, did that as frequently as Bush did in 2005. Nobody, not even Vince Young, carries as much anticipation and promise into 2006.
Bush is NEXT because no one else takes us to the point where we lose the power of explanation. Bush is NEXT because NFL coaches were forced to answer questions about the prospect of losing intentionally for a chance at drafting him. Bush is NEXT, above all, because there is no comparison. We haven't seen this before, and that's why we cant stop watching. He had 513 all-purpose yards against Fresno State. He had 177 total yards against Texas in the Rose Bowl, on just 19 touches. After that game, everybody called him a disappointment. Such is the burden of his talent, a talent that invites hyperbole. He's Dr. J taking off from the foul line. He's Mays with his back to the infield. Damn ... there we go again with the small-minded comparisons.
His ability is singular, and clearly we laymen aren't the only ones who feel this way. Watch the defenders when Bush erupts into the open field. See how they break down about 10 yards before he crosses their path, as if they were trying to read his mind. Coaches preach against hesitating like this, but the would-be tacklers can't fight human nature. This pause is a plea for mercy, an acknowledgment that sitting back and waiting will provide less overt humiliation than flying in, taking your best shot and being the stooge. So they break down, choosing benign embarrassment, and wait. It's prayer as body language.
The coaches called upon to stop him - grizzled football men who have seen everything three or four times, men who are paid to find flaws and exploit weaknesses - have no answers either. Go inside the film room with the Cal defensive brain trust in the days leading up to the Bears' Nov.12 game against USC. As they watch Trojans game tapes, they see Bush take off on a 45-yard touchdown run against Notre Dame.
They stop. They look at each other. It's a counter play from a one-back set. Bush breaks free, cuts it back, then jumps over a defender. After a moment of concentrated silence, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory says, "Let's see that again."
They watch it again. And again. They don't talk; they watch. They've gone from being analysts to admirers. The more they watch, the more they're fixated on one element of the run. They slow it down to get a better look. Right there. See that? When Bush leaps over the defender, he lands on one foot and seems to cut - to actually change direction - before the other foot hits the ground.
What the hell?
He lands and cuts on one foot.
Leap, land, cut.
He can't be doing that. Is such a thing even possible?
So they watch it again. And again.
Bush isn't landing and regaining his balance. That's what other backs - even great backs - do. Not this guy. This guy appears to be balancing in the air, as if gravity didn't apply.
The coaches keep watching. By now, this has nothing to do with schemes and formations. This isn't something they will show their defensive players and say, "Okay, guys, we have to look out for this."
No, this goes beyond the normal descriptives - speed, moves, vision. This becomes a meditation on science, on possibilities.
"We weren't watching for scouting purposes," Gregory says later. "We were watching it over and over to say, 'Wow, look at what this guy can do.' Some of the physiological stuff he did on that one run was just amazing."
Long before they watched the play for the 15th, maybe 20th time, football was no longer the focus. It was about awe, about disbelief, about something that defies description or comparison. Bush has football coaches ruminating on physiology. And in those moments of wonder, they become just like the rest of us. They know it was easier to watch than describe. They also know why they kept watching, over and over.
They'd never seen anything like it.