The Flaming Bush
September 7, 2006

As you probably know, occasionally I go off the reservation and write about things that are not baseball related.  For example, earlier this year I wrote about how I thought that the Texas Longhorns would beat the USC Trojans in the national championship game and how I thought UConn, LSU, Florida and Kansas would reach the Final Four.  Anyway, as a Saints fan, I was overjoyed when the Texans passed on Reggie Bush allowing the Saints to take him.  That moment alone rekindled my interest in fantasy football.  Still, predicting Bush's impact on the game, both real and fantasy, has elicited a wide range of opinion.  Most fantasy football opinion is that he is a second or third round pick at best because he's likely to lose carries, particularly those valuable goal line opportunities, to Deuce McAllister.  That's a sensible opinion; rookie running backs can be a high risk proposition.  However, I believe Bush is different.

He has a rare combination of excellent vision, balance, speed, quick acceleration, lateral quickness and impressive versatility.  He reminds some observers of Barry Sanders; older observers liken his talent to that of Gale Sayers.  If he is indeed cut from the same cloth, I think it would be instructive to see just what kind of impact those guys had in their rookie years.

The 1988 Detroit Lions split a 4-12 season under two head coaches, first under Darryl Rogers and then Wayne Fontes for the final 5 games.  Garry James had been the primary running back but the ugly truth is that Fontes' club had very little in the way of impact players in the skill positions.  So it was no problem for the Lions to name Sanders as their primary running back for 1989.  In that respect only is Bush's situation is different.  The Lions did have a couple of diversionary weapons on offense with recievers Richard Johnson and Robert Clark, who combined for more than 1800 yards recieving and 10 scores.  Those totals are near miraculous when you consider that it was a combination of Bob Gagliano and Rodney Peete throwing to them.  But it was Sanders, who rushed for 1470 yards (and 14 TDs) and picked up another 280+ through the air that drove the offense.   The Lions improved to 7-9 in 1989.

In 1964, the Chicago Bears went 5-9.  That's better than last year's 3-13 Saints, but not by much.  Anyway, that offseason they drafted the Kansas Comet with the intent of playing him all over the field, allowing him to get touches out of the backfield, as a reciever and on special teams as a punt and kick returner.  Sound familiar?  They already had two steady and fairly unspectacular running backs - Jon Arnett and Ronnie Bull - but figured Sayers would get enough touches to make an impact.  Did he ever.  Despite Arnett and Bull combining for 193 carries, Sayers managed 166 touches out of the backfield for 867 yards and 14 TDs.  That rates out to 12 rushes, 62 yards and 1 TD per game on the ground.  He also caught 29 passes for 507 yards and 6 more TDs, an average of 2 catches for 36 yards every game.  He wasn't the only target of QB Rudy Bukich's passes: Johnny Morris grabbed 846 yards worth of passes (good for 11th best in the league) and Mike Ditka who was coming off four straight years of 800+ yards recieving from the TE spot.  Sayers scored an additional 2 TDs on special teams, both of which came against San Francisco when he scored what is still an NFL single-game record 6 TDs. 

Looking at other comparable college talents like Billy Sims gives more foundation for optimism for Bush.  Sims, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry in his final season at Oklahoma (significantly less than the 8.7 Bush averaged), joined a 2-14 Lions squad and turned them around to 9-7 with 1303 yards on the ground, 621 yards in the air and 16 TDs his rookie season.  Many people forget that Marshall Faulk turned a 4-12 Indianapolis team into an 8-8 squad with 1282 yards on the ground, 522 in the air and 12 TDs after averaging 7.1 yards per carry in college.  While they had the advantage of being the sole options in the backfield once they reached the NFL, an argument can be made that Bush is a more accomplished and higher ceiling talent at the same point in their careers and thus can do as much with less. 

Am I saying Reggie Bush is going to score 6 TDs in a single game or rush for 1500 yards this season?  Not necessarily.  What I am saying is that he's going to be one of the primary offensive weapons on a team that is comparable to that 1964-65 Bears team that added Sayers and that if those comparisons to Sayers are accurate, he will have a substantial fantasy impact.  Is Drew Brees a better QB than Rudy Bukich?  Since Bukich was only a starter for 4 years of his 15 year career, I'd hazard a "yes".  Is he better than the tandem the Lions had in 1989?  Oh yeah!  Are Joe Horn and Deuce McCallister coming off injury plagued seasons any more of a threat to cut into the number of touches Bush will get than the guys Sayers was playing with?  Or the tandem of wide recievers they had in Detroit with Sanders?  Maybe.  But Bush won't be vying for balls with a Hall of Famer and with the way new Saints coach Sean Payton is talking about using him, Bush will get far more passes thrown his way than the 2 or 3 per game Sayers and Sanders got.  If the preseason is any indication, he could average 6-8 pass plays a game.

So how would this play out in fantasy?   Pro-rating Sayers' rookie yardage numbers over a full 16-game season yields 157 points in ESPN leagues where a point is awarded for every 10 yards.  Sanders rookie season yields 175.  By contrast, LaDanian Tomlinson posted 183 yardage points last year.  Sayers' total is roughly the same as what Rudi Johnson, Lamont Jordan, Steven Jackson, Brian Westbrook, Warrick Dunn, Willis McGahee and Willie Parker are expected to net.  Given he has the same kind of elusiveness that Sayers and Sanders had, it's not a stretch to think that Bush could end up with a similar number of TDs (or at least in the neighborhood) as those guys on long runs and runs after the catch.  If your league also gives points for return yardage and TDs on special teams, receptions and/or extra points for long scoring plays, Bush suddenly becomes a threat to move into the Tiki Barber/LT/ Shawn Alexander/Larry Johnson territory.  It's a bit of a long shot that he reaches those heights in his first season, but he's a strong bet to be just as productive as many of the first round running backs with all the ways he contributes.  I'm no fantasy football expert, but history strongly suggests that Reggie Bush taken in any round after the first will be a steal.