There were two short passes that slipped through his hands.
Reggie Bush sits dejected on the end of the Saints bench near the end of the loss to Tampa Sunday.
Then there was the inaccurate, no-look toss on a botched trick play that may go down as the moment New Orleans truly blew its chance to get back into playoff contention.
Yet, more than any of those, the images that seemed to symbolize Bush’s difficult second season occurred off the field at the end of the Saints’ 27-23 loss to Tampa Bay.
Bush was walking toward the tunnel leading to the Louisiana Superdome locker room while what was initially called a fumble by Saints kick returner Lance Moore was in the process of being overturned. There were 14 seconds left, and head coach Sean Payton had to run Bush down and angrily order him back to the bench.
After the game, Bush sat in front of his locker for more than a half hour, still in uniform, with his hands on his head as he stared at the floor. He declined to speak with reporters.
On Monday, he was absent while reporters were permitted to talk with players in the locker room at the team’s suburban training facility.
“Reggie is a great talent. Reggie is one of the best athletes I have ever seen, but that only gets you so far,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “Certain fundamentals and discipline to playing this game — that is learned and that’s not something that just happens immediately.”
Were expectations of Bush too high? He won the Heisman Trophy at Southern California, was the second overall pick in the 2006 draft and signed a contract worth up to $62 million over six years. Yet, many players who were virtually unstoppable during their amateur days have entered the NFL with a lot of hype, only to find that much of what worked in college only got in them in trouble against stronger, faster, more disciplined NFL defenders.
Bush seemed to be figuring that out, even overcoming it, during the latter half of his rookie season, which was defined primarily by three spectacular plays: A game-winning, 55-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tampa Bay; a screen pass that he turned into a weaving, 61-yard score at Dallas; and his 88-yard touchdown catch in the NFC championship game at Chicago, a play he finished by high-stepping and then somersaulting into the end zone.
With those highlights in mind — not to mention his 1,307 yards running and receiving combined and his nine touchdowns during the 2006 regular season — no one snickered when Bush confidently predicted during training camp that 2007 would be his breakout season.
After 12 games, it looks more like a breakdown season.
Bush’s numbers are not bad, but far from spectacular. He’s scored six touchdowns, has 581 yards rushing and 417 yards receiving. His longest run so far has been 22 yards and his longest reception 25.
The long, game-breaking plays Bush says he expects of himself haven’t come this season, unlike the big mistakes he hoped to avoid.
He’s been lucky the Saints have recovered most of his eight fumbles, including a punt that bounced away from him after hitting off his facemask during a win over Jacksonville.
His most costly errors were a lost fumble at the Houston 1-yard line in a loss to the Texans and the botched toss to Henderson on Sunday while the Saints were trying to protect a 23-20 lead in the final 3 minutes.
Bush, who had trouble with the handoff, already was running past Henderson by the time he got a handle on it. He had to make a split-second decision: Keep the ball and eat a likely loss of yardage, or make the risky toss.
Bush chose the latter. Henderson reached back behind him with one hand but could not pull it in. Tampa Bay ended up recovering on the Saints 37 to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Payton sought to deflect criticism from Bush. The coach said initially and again on Monday that he put Bush in a risky situation.
“There’s a lot of risk in a play like that and your worst fear is realized when you don’t handle the exchange or block it just how you want,” Payton said. “It’s my fault for putting us in that position in that point in the game.”
Speaking generally, however, Payton did say Bush needs to improve in the areas of ball security and pass blocking.
There have been other off-field distractions. The NCAA and Pac-10 are still investigating whether Bush or his family received improper benefits from agents while he was still in college. Bush has said repeatedly he did nothing wrong and his lawyer has said the Bush’s are simply being extorted by criminals.
Bush is also named in a civil lawsuit filed by a fledging marketing agent who claims to gave given the Bush family money. Bush could lose his Heisman if he’s found to have violated NCAA rules.
Still, Bush has never been accused of anything illegal and his NFL career in New Orleans would not be affected. Furthermore, Bush has insisted that the case has not distracted him on the field.
Brees said Bush benefited as a rookie from the presence of veteran running back Deuce McAllister, who went out for the rest of this season after a knee injury in Week 3.
“Reggie is still a young player in this league, and like I said, I think a young back absolutely needs mentoring in this league from a guy like Deuce,” Brees said. “It has been tough because (McAllister) has been hurt and isn’t here like he was last year for him. So that’s tough and I think it is just learning how to be a professional.
“There’s definitely a learning curve, and keep in mind the tremendous expectations for Reggie Bush from the moment he stepped foot in this league,” Brees continued. “So I think that everyone expects him to go out and just be Superman all the time and that is not the case, especially in this league.”