For the Saints, the debate about whether Reggie Bush fulfilled on-field expectations during his five seasons in New Orleans is a short one.
The 46-year-old franchise reached its only two NFC title games with Bush on the roster. It won its lone NFL championship within four seasons of drafting him second overall in 2006, eight months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area. And he made an impact in some of the biggest games the Saints have had in their history.
What else needs to be said, they asked Wednesday, four days before the Saints (2-3) visit the Detroit Lions (4-2), the team Bush joined in 2013.
“When you win a world championship, at that moment, it validates every selection and decision and signing that brings you to that point,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’d obviously be included in that equation ... and in the years that he spent with us, he was very instrumental in what we became.”
Skeptics in New Orleans may never forgive Bush — a running back, nominally — for failing to finish Top 10 in the NFL in rushing when he was with the Saints. They might never forget that he missed 20 regular-season games hurt.
But Payton is not at alone in feeling the way he does.
Quarterback Drew Brees pointed out that Bush’s best game as a rookie came on a Christmas Eve, when the Saints locked up a No. 2 playoff seed with a 30-7 victory at the New York Giants. He rushed for 126 yards — the most he had in a game as a Saint — and a touchdown to ensure New Orleans had a first-round bye and hosted a divisional playoff.
“I remember vividly,” Brees said. “Reggie was just having one of those games where he had the hot hand.”
Bush followed that up with a rushing touchdown in the divisional-round win over Philadelphia, and he authored one of the few highlights the Saints had in their 39-14 NFC Championship Game loss in Chicago with an 88-yard scoring reception.
When the Saints were back in the divisional playoffs in 2009, facing the Arizona Cardinals in New Orleans, he ran for a touchdown from 46 yards out and returned a punt for an 83-yard score in the Saints’ 45-14 win. All of that occurred after he led the Saints onto the field while brandishing a wooden baseball bat over his head, a bold gesture signaling to the millions witnessing the game either in person or on television that he was going to give them a grand slam of a performance.
The NFC Championship Game against Minnesota was next; and he bounced back from a punt he muffed and the Vikings recovered at New Orleans’ 10 to catch the Saints’ last touchdown in a 31-28 win that propelled them to Super Bowl XLIV, where they vanquished the Colts and Bush’s coach at the Lions these days, Jim Caldwell.
Thus culminated a process that began with the first season-ticket sellout ever for the Saints about 12 months after federal levees failed in New Orleans during Katrina in August 2005, inundating the city and killing more than 1,800. It was an expression of faith from a region early in its recovery that Bush Payton, Brees and other colleagues who arrived in 2006 rewarded with a Lombardi trophy.
“The player he was, all the things he could do on the field, I think what this city needed was somebody like that to be drafted here,” Brees said. Just the excitement that brought, lifting everybody’s spirits, giving them hope.”
Less pleasant times ensued. After the 2010 season, the Saints used a first-round draft pick to grab Mark Ingram out of Alabama. They acquired Darren Sproles (now with Philadelphia) in free agency and traded Bush to the Miami Dolphins.
Bush also relinquished the Heisman Trophy he won in 2005 at Southern California after the school was slapped with sanctions for NCAA rules violations.
Yet Bush has been more than fine since, rushing for more than 1,000 yards once each with Miami (2011) and Detroit (2013). He neared that threshold with the Dolphins in 2012.
Meanwhile, the Saints have been to the divisional playoffs twice since moving on from Bush.
“That’s the business side of the game,” Bush told the Ann Arbor, Michigan, website mlive.com this summer about his split from the Saints. “I’m not sour, I’m not mad about it, and ... the Saints are a great team.”
As far as the Saints are concerned, they’ve been that because Bush was a great player.
“The perception in this locker room is he was an attribute,” said tackle Zach Strief, a rookie alongside Bush in 2006. “He was exactly the type of teammate you look for, and he’s the type of person they still look for here.”