Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reggie Bush and the Saints Tradition: Big Hopes, Big Dreams, Big Butts

I'm not sure if I can still pull off the jersey look. But if I were to buy a Saints jersey, it would be a Reggie Bush. Not because I like the number 25 or even because I like Reggie Bush. (I'm not so sure that I do.) I want that jersey because I'm a true Saints fan, and Reggie Bush is more symbolic of the franchise's identity than any other player it has ever employed.*

In 1967, the first play in New Orleans Saints history was a kickoff returned for a touchdown. Ever since then, the team has fallen short of that promise:

- Despite a mediocre season, the Saints were still playoff-bound in 1979, until Oakland humiliated them by coming back from 24 points down on "Monday Night Football."
- Fans began calling the team the Ain'ts during the 1980 season, during which the team went 1-15. Legendary radio announcer Buddy Diliberto suggested fans wear paper bags on their heads so that none of their friends recognized them at the game. They did. We invented that.
- Amazingly, it took until 1987 for the Saints to have their first winning season. They were embarrassed 44-10 by Minnesota in the playoffs.
- It would take until 1991 for the Saints to win an NFC Western Division title. In the playoff game, they seemed poised for victory until the Atlanta Falcons improvised a lateral-pitching miracle on the final play of the game to send the game into overtime and send me to the bathroom to throw up. (Seriously, I was eight. It was too much to take.)
- In 1992 another memorable season was flushed away with a first-round playoff loss to the Eagles. Again, we gave up 29 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. It was the first time I heard my dad say "fuck."
- At the time, in 1999, I supported Mike Ditka's decision to trade an entire draft's worth of picks for Ricky Williams. But a hall-of-fame coach and a Heisman winner (two actually, if you count Danny Wuerffel) still only equaled a 3-13 season. Plus, we didn't have any draft picks for a while.

Ditka after the then-winless Browns connected on a 56-yard Hail Mary pass with no time left on the clock.

- Barely, despite giving up 24 points, the Saints finally won a wild-card playoff game in 2000 under the spry legs of Aaron Brooks (whom I would curse out for the next five years as he threw balls into the stands and smiled after interceptions). They then got blown out by Minnesota in the next round.

Along the way, there were many more heartbreaking losses, so many that "leavin' the fourth quarter in the French Quarter" has become an unofficial motto that follows the team around. For instance, remember when the Saints improvised a lateral-pitching miracle against the Jags, only to miss the extra point that would have sent the game into overtime?


So pardon us if we had some baggage when we drafted Reggie Bush in 2006. It's not as if it was fair to him. We seemed cursed, not even with failure like the Clippers, but with a more frustrating mediocrity. At least half of the seasons of my lifetime have seen records of 8-8.

But this guy, one of the most electrifying college players ever, was going to change that. He was going to change the game itself, and he fell into our laps. He could catch passes as a wideout. He had the agility and durability to run the ball. He had the vision to return kicks and punts. It was too good to be true.

At the eve of Bush's fourth season, it's still too good to be true. On the morning of January 12, 2006, when an entire fanbase hugged each other and cried onto each other's shoulders, clinging to the only hope some of them had, Tom Jackson compared Bush to Gayle Sayers. Mel Kiper went on to say, tongue-in-cheek, that if Reggie Bush wasn't a Pro Bowler, something was wrong with football.

Something is wrong with football. Instead of changing the NFL game, he changed his own game for the NFL. He petitioned the league to let him have his coveted number 5 and was denied, the first small disappointment in a career of them. He tried to bulk up to fit the NFL mold of an every-down back, but it ended up slowing him down. The Saints, realizing this, set him off in the slot and threw to him over 100 times his rookie season. Even with 88 receptions though, he still had less than 1000 yards. We tried trick plays with him in a league in which trick plays famously don't work.

I don't want to demean Bush, who has headed up countless charity endeavors for the city and seems like a wonderful person. There have been some great moments. His go-ahead punt return TD as a rookie (on which we totally got away with a hold). Hell, he was leading the league in touchdowns until he got hurt in the tenth game of last season.

But even he must be ashamed to have nearly as many fumbles (15) as he has touchdowns (24) in his career. Even he must be surprised to have had so many nagging injuries. Even he must be shocked that his callipygian girlfriend is more famous than he is. It's not a good sign when the marquee player for your favorite team gets picked in your fantasy draft, and you're kind of relieved that you didn't have to pick him. On the plus side, he's great in video games.

Look it up.

It's not as if he wants to squander his potential, but that's what happens when you play for the Saints. He's a man before or past his prime, playing with a team that lives in a tradition of that incongruity. Bum Phillips kept the starters in during preseason games and built up ticket sales, only to go 3-13 when things were even. Archie Manning threw for thousands of yards only to watch an immature defense give up his points. The Dome Patrol's run-blockers played during an era with wide-open passing attacks. We had Mike Ditka when he no longer had a clue, and we drafted Ricky Williams when he didn't even want to play football. Why did we expect Reggie Bush to be anything other than a shifty, butterfingered letdown? He isn't even bad. He's just mediocre.

Even though the team was often winning by double-digits, my stepdad and I cursed up a storm watching the Saints game this past Sunday. Even when up by two touchdowns, we have been conditioned to never let up, to never take down our guard of skepticism, to expect the worst. A lifetime of watching this team has done that. Reggie Bush scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but neither of us cheered because we knew there must have been a flag, and, sure enough, there was. The touchdown was called back, and we weren't surprised. That's what happens to the Saints, and Reggie Bush embodies everything the Saints are. Hopefully, he isn't everything the Saints will ever be.

* With the possible exception of Michael Lewis, who was a hometown beer truck driver floating around semi-pro leagues until some scout for the Saints went, "Hey, that dude's fast!" and made him a Pro Bowl return specialist. If that doesn't speak to the Saints' rag-tag history, I don't know what does.