Is Bush big enough?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 22, 2006



By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor Mike Carlson
 
When you're in the 225 Club, you learn that evaluation is a process subject to change as time passes. Like when you first go into a bar, your eyes may have glanced past and dismissed that chunky honey sitting alone on (or under) a stool. But after a few gallons of suds have joined the tidal rush from your face to your belly, she starts looking like the answer to all your prayers. Or at least one of them.
   
It tends to work the other way in the NFL. One quick 40-yard time can have an LSD-like effect on scouts, making them ignore an entire season's worth of film showing a wide receiver alligator-arming everything over the middle. But in general, once the combine is over, everyone sits around trying to figure out what a player cannot do and why you shouldn't draft him.
   
Especially this year, if that player is Reggie Bush. Universally proclaimed as the best college football player in America last season, and likened to some of the best backs to ever play the game, he has in the run-up to the draft developed numerous chinks in his consensus No. 1-pick armor.
   
"He's too small."
 
"He played on a powerhouse team, behind a powerhouse line."
 
"He shared time with LenDale White, who did all the dirty work.
 
And most damning of all: "He's a THIRD-DOWN BACK disguised as a Heisman winner. He'll never be an EVERY-DOWN BACK in the NFL."
 
"Third-down" vs. "every-down" backs    
So is the one Bush who really is a proven runner genetically unsuited to be an "every-down" back? The question itself is loaded, because generally the definition of an "every-down" back includes runners who come out of the game on third down because they can't catch passes, or worse, because they can't protect the passer, as well as runners who come out near the end zone because they can't crush the ball over the goal line. Generally speaking, the players the "pundits" describe as "every-down" backs are often anything but. In many cases, they're just first- and second-down backs. Last we checked, the NFL game still offered four opportunities to gain a first.
 
For example, Baltimore's sometimes spectacular Jamal Lewis is considered a prototypical "every-down" back, with both speed and size (Lewis is listed at a hefty 245). But if you leave him in on third down, you better put him in the flat looking for the outlet pass, because if he has to block a rushing linebacker, your QB is meat. And if you want him running a pattern downfield, you better not expect a sharp cut at a precise point. Lewis has caught just 142 passes for 1,250 yards in his six-year career. It's respectable, but LaDainian Tomlinson (342 receptions in five seasons, including 100 in 2003 alone) certainly isn't impressed.

Sizing up Bush
The biggest concern about Bush is his size. He's listed at 5-11, 200 pounds. Look at the runners who started for the NFL's 12 playoff teams last season, which was basically 16 backs, allowing for injury, indecision and Jerome Bettis. Those 12 teams also regularly used an additional seven runners, including generally effective third-down backs such as New England's Kevin Faulk, giving us 23. These 23 backs – the primary ballcarriers on the NFL's best teams last season, average just over 5-11.
 
That puts Bush right on target. However, the average weight of these 23 backs is 223.8 pounds, quite a bit larger than Bush. Regardless of speed, cutting ability, quickness or power, most NFL runners are built to absorb hits. Does anyone doubt the durability of Emmitt Smith (5-9, 212)?
  
Apart from the 5-8 Faulk and Verron Haynes, Pittsburgh's 5-9, 222-pound third-down specialist, the other 21 are all between 5-10 and 6-1, with weights ranging from Tiki Barber's 200 to Bettis' 255 (Celsius). 
 
Faulk, 5-8, 202, is the one anomaly, and a fairly good example of what a classic "third-down" back is supposed to look like. But it's not as if he's an ordinary athlete. The SEC record books remain littered with Faulk's name. He's second only to Herschel Walker in SEC career rushing yards and TDs, and ranks fifth in NCAA history with 6,833 career all-purpose yards.
  
All the other guys listed at 5-10 or 5-11 weigh 210 or more (Bettis, remember, is listed at 5-11). All those listed at 6-0 or 6-1 weigh 214 (Edgerrin James) or more. Some are built like fullbacks (Bettis, Duce Staley, Greg Jones and Mike Alstott, who IS a fullback) or cruiser-weight fullbacks (Haynes, Rudi Johnson). 
    
The classic, power-running tailback type is best represented today by:
  • Seattle's Shaun Alexander (5-11, 225)
  • Tampa's Cadillac Williams (5-11, 217)
  • Chicago's Thomas Jones (5-10, 220)
  • Carolina's DeShaun Foster (6-0, 225)
  • Cincy's Chris Perry (6-0, 225)
  • New England's Corey Dillon (6-1, 225)
  • Free agent Stephen Davis (6-0, 230)
  • Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (6-1, 234)
  • Baltimore's Mike Anderson (6-0, 230)
Arizona's Edgerrin James (6-0, 214) and Tampa's Michael Pittman (6-0, 218) might be seen as leaner types who are better out of the backfield, but James is generally a tough runner at the goal line. And, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts have often noted, he right now stands as the most productive offensive player in the history of the league (125.7 YPG). Not bad for a smaller back.
   
Given that Bush is not a good match for this group of larger ballcarriers, ask yourself whether they have proven injury-free or not. Jones, Foster and Taylor, who all chime in at 220 or better, have had recurring injury problems. James, Anderson and Davis have had serious one-off injuries. But virtually all the backs on the list have missed quality time during their careers.
 
When comparing prototypical big backs to smaller backs, the Cold, Hard Football Facts are quite clear: Size itself isn't any guarantee against breakdown.
 
Comparable backs    
In pure size terms, the closest to Bush these days are Washington's Clinton Portis (5-11, 210), Denver's Tatum Bell (5-11, 213), Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (5-10, 209) and the Giants' Tiki Barber (5-10, 200). Portis has been slowed by injury, but even at his size has been highly productive when he's played. He's rushed for more than 1,300 yards all four years he's been in the league and averages a nifty 4.7 yards per carry.
 
Barber is the single player closest in size to Bush. Despite his smallish stature, Barber has been fairly durable, and is one of the best double threats in the NFL today, arguably the best.
    
Barber is also the closest match to Bush in terms of skills. And you'll remember he was typecast as a third-down back for too many years. How many TDs were lost because Ron Dayne (5-10, 245) LOOKED like a fullback, but Barber was the guy actually able to run like one? After nine years in the league, Barber is fresh off his best season – a Giants franchise record 1,860 yards rushing and an impressive 5.2 yards per carry, not to mention 530 yards catching passes. His 2,390 yards of total offense last season is second in NFL history (Marshall Faulk, 2,429 in 1999).
 
Go beyond the 2005 playoff teams, and there's another guy in the NFL right now who's overcome that third-down label. Warrick Dunn is listed at 5-9, 180 pounds. And believe you us, it's a Cold, Hard Football Fact that he has the skinniest legs you've ever seen this side of a UNICEF commercial. But he's bow-legged, like a lot of great runners, which gives him great balance and more torque to push off his cuts. 
 
Dunn split a lot of time in Tampa with Alstott. But set free in Atlanta, running behind a Denver-type blocking scheme and against defenses often committed to shadowing Michael Vick, Dunn has proven effective whether or not the bigger T.J. Duckett was given carries to share the load. Like Barber, Dunn is coming off the ninth and most productive season of his career. He rushed for a career-high 1,416 yards last year and averaged a sparkling 5.1 yards per carry.
 
If Barber and Dunn are the closest physical comparisons to Bush among current NFL backs, it's certainly a good sign for the incoming rookie.
 
The right team with the right scheme
There are two more great reasons to believe Bush will succeed in Houston (assuming they do the right thing and take him with the No. 1 pick), besides his obvious talent.
 
One, in Houston, he's moving into a Denver-type system, where he'll work under former Denver offensive coordinator and new Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. You might remember one of Kubiak's prize projects in Denver: sixth-round draft pick, 2,000-yard rusher and Super Bowl MVP Terrell Davis. He was 5-11, 210.
 
Two, he'll have Domanick Davis (a bulky 5-9, 221) to share the load if the Texans feel they need a LenDale White to give Bush a break. 
    
History lessons 
Other evidence to mitigate the "Bush is too small" argument is provided by Barry Sanders. He may not challenge Jim Brown as the best runner ever, in part because the Lions took him out near the goal line later in his career, but he certainly could carry the ball as often as they wanted. Sanders was a Kevin Faulk-sized 5-8, 200 pounds, but his production is nearly unparalleled. He averaged more than 300 carries and 1,500 rushing yards during his 10 years in the NFL, with a spectacular 5.0 yards per carry. Among all-time leading rushers (Sanders is third), only Brown, at 5.2 yards per carry, comes close to Sanders' career average.
    
Reggie Bush's future depends less on size than on the way his size is used. An even closer match for him than Barber might be future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (5-10, 210 pounds). Remember, Faulk was worn down being used as a standard tailback in Indianapolis, before being more integrated into the Rams' downfield passing game. But does anyone seriously think of the record-setting Faulk, a former NFL MVP (2000), as a third-down back?
   
Finally, remember this: If there is a candidate to challenge Jim Brown as the greatest running back of all time, it is Walter Payton, who, when he retired after the 1987 season, held the NFL records for single-game rushing yards (275), career rushing yards (16,726) and total yards (21,803). How big was "Sweetness"? He was 5-10, 200, a shade smaller than Reggie Bush. 
 
 
As for us, we're going to meet that chunky girl over there ... the one passed out under her stool. She suddenly looks pretty good. 

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