By Bomani Jones
Special to Page 2

Now that Reggie Bush has given a game away, will people admit that maybe he wasn't such a slam dunk top pick?

With the score tied at 24 with 7:03 left in the 3rd quarter at Heinz Field, Bush put the ball on the ground. The Steelers recovered and immediately scored the first of three unanswered touchdowns that clearly swung the game in their favor.

Sean Payton greeted Bush with a potty-mouth tirade as the rookie came to the sideline. It seemed a bit much considering that even Jim Brown might not have held on to the ball if a safety got a hat on it as he fell forward. But it wasn't too much, if in a moment of frustration, Payton was forced to confront a reality nine games in the making -- right now, Reggie Bush just isn't that good.

And for that reason, the majority of the football universe owes Mario Williams a sincere apology.

You may remember Williams from one of many choice jokes from a fellow fan or your favorite sportswriter (or this sportswriter). He's also known as the top pick of the 2006 draft. But he's best known as the man the foolish Texans chose instead of taking Bush.

Now, we should call him a promising pass-rusher. He's also the only defensive lineman in Houston who shouldn't wear a mask on payday.

And, this season, Williams has been a better player than Bush.

That doesn't necessarily mean he will have a better career than Bush, but it does indicate that the Texans weren't hittin' the hooch when they passed on the Heisman Trophy winner.

A lot of people owe Williams some sort of mea culpa. To turn him into Sam Bowie before he played an NFL down was inhumane. And making Bush into Michael Jordan in April has proven to be a bit hasty.

Mario Williams
Bob Levey/WireImage.com
Houston's Mario Williams is off to a solid start with 4.5 sacks in his first nine games.

Williams hasn't set the world on fire, but he's been pretty good. And it's not like he's getting a lot of help. He's recorded 4.5 sacks in 9 games, while the rest of the team's defensive linemen have 5.5 sacks combined. And while Williams has had moments when he's looked utterly clueless, he has managed to command double teams and show that he has the potential to convert his incredible measurables into dominance as a pass-rusher.

Most impressive is that he's done all this while most observers anxiously expected failure, like he's that K-Fed character or something. Think about that -- Williams got the same treatment as a backup dancer suffering from the delusion that he can rap.

That's dirty pool.

The way Williams' selection was treated after it was announced that he would be the top pick was unfair. It's understandable that most people would have taken Bush with the top pick. After all, most people had heard of Bush but couldn't pick Williams out of a lineup.

But it wasn't lunacy that Houston went with Williams instead of Bush. It was debatable whether Bush could handle the rigors of being a feature back in the NFL, a debate that has continued since Bush has been dinged up all season. And the last do-it-all dynamo to approach a draft with this much hype was Rocket Ismail, who would have gotten a GM fired had he not gone to Canada out of Notre Dame.

It's also not like Williams was some unheard-of prospect. Most mock drafts had him going high, and many of those had him going to New Orleans after the Saints signed Drew Brees.

Oh yeah, and he's a physical specimen on par with Julius Peppers. That's not to say he's as good as Peppers, a sentiment the town of Chapel Hill, where Peppers attended college, goes out of its way to share. But neither is Michael Strahan or anyone else. Williams is an inch taller than Pep, 10 pounds heavier and ran almost the same 40 time at the combine as Peppers did in 2002. That means that Williams entered the NFL as one of the biggest defensive ends and possibly the fastest. That's a promising combination to have at one of the league's most essential and glamorous positions.

There were two big questions about Williams: 1) Could he refine his technique in a league where athleticism alone isn't enough? And, 2) Would he take games off like he did at N.C. State, where he rarely shined against top competition?

For some reason, we never asked those questions about Reggie Bush.

And we should have.

Bush has shown little of the sizzle that made him the most dynamic, electrifying college player since Barry Sanders. His speed hasn't been enough to free him -- there are a lot more fast guys in the pros than in college -- and he hasn't shown much of a talent for reading blocks.

He's averaging less than three yards a carry. He's sixth in the league with 53 receptions, but at less than seven yards per catch. Bush hasn't recorded a single run over 20 yards, and his longest reception went for 32. Aside from his game-winning touchdown against the Bucs, his punt returning, the area in which it seemed most likely he'd thrive early on, has been steady but not spectacular.

Yeah, he's dinged up. But he ain't broken down.

After months of comparing Bush to Gale Sayers, he's looked a lot more like Larry Centers or Keith Byars. Maybe those two should have gotten deals to shill sandwiches.

Under most circumstances, Bush's disappointing play would be big news. Payton's harsh words would have been the culmination of a national discussion about how this bonus baby needs to step up his game. It would be debated whether a player with his build -- thin at the joints, muscular but certainly not beefy -- could truly succeed as an NFL feature back.

Not this year, baby. Not in New Orleans.

America figured out the easiest way to continue to show support for the rebuilding of New Orleans would be to root for the Saints. Instead of questioning why it's taking so long to get so many New Orleanians back into their homes or watching all four hours of Spike Lee's "When The Levees Broke: Requiem," the country has adopted the Saints as its own team, a selfless act considering how much joy those old jokes about the "Aints" brought the nation.

The face of America's New Team was Bush, fresh off a collegiate career that made him the rare college player to enter the NFL as a megawatt star. And unlike the last time the Saints drafted such a player -- 1999, when they drafted the only resident of Planet Ricky -- Bush didn't appear to be out of his gourd. He arrived saying all the right things, including his promises to help rebuild the city. It was almost unanimously believed when Bush arrived at training camp that he was crucial to the Saints' hopes of having a successful season and the long-term viability of a team that desperately needed to put people in the seats.

Then the season started, and the Saints looked pretty good. After their momentous win over Atlanta in the first game at the renovated Superdome, they were a national cause celebre and Bush remained the Saints' PR face.

No doubt, Bush has sold tickets. But how much has he really contributed on the field?

He won the game against Tampa, but that got washed away by his fumble against the Steelers. He's gone over 100 yards from scrimmage as many times, once, as he's been held to negative rushing yards. He's had as many rushing touchdowns as he's thrown interceptions. He hasn't even had a good game. Not all of them were bad, but none of them were good.

Reggie Bush
Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.com
Reggie Bush might be wishing Fresno State was on the Saints' schedule this season.

Bush's apologists argue that his ability to occupy a linebacker, both when he's in the backfield and split out wide, is part of what's made the Saints' offense go. That's a tough sell. It's actually confusing that anyone would spy on a guy averaging 2.8 yards per carry and 6.6 yards per catch.

The Saints' offense has improved dramatically from last season. That should be expected from a team that replaced Aaron Brooks at quarterback with Brees. Come to think of it, you can't even say that Brees "replaced" Brooks. That's like "replacing" a pair of flip flops with a Jaguar.

That's meant a lot more to the Saints than what any linebacker does.

New Orleans also struck the lotto by drafting Marques Colston in the seventh round, who both complemented Joe Horn and compensated for the vet's absence after he got hurt. He's big, strong, fast enough and has good hands. He's got a possession receiver's body and the ability to make big plays. He's looked like a faster Keyshawn Johnson. That would hold with or without Reggie Bush.

Oh, and the Saints had a pretty good tailback before Bush got there. That would be Deuce McAllister, who only played in five games last season. Well, he's back now and playing pretty well. Maybe that's got to do with those linebackers, but Deuce has been a helluva back for a while.

You can't credit those things to Reggie Bush. It's still exciting whenever he touches the ball, but excitement and a token won't get you on the subway when it comes to playing football. The game's still about production, and he's coming up short.

Way short. Instead of being a catalyst of change, Bush has been along for the ride.

So should the Texans have taken Bush? Consider what my Houston correspondent, my best friend and fellow Houston native George Sands, says about whether people there still wish the Texans had taken Bush.

"People here have come to realize he wouldn't have been able to do anything behind that line, anyway."

It'll probably be a while before anyone can definitively say whether Bush or Williams had the better career. It's also likely that Bush will improve. Honestly, it's hard to imagine him being less dynamic.

The Texans have time to be proven wrong, but they don't look moronic for taking Williams. Pronouncements of the Texans' stupidity resulted in a young man being raked over the coals because he responded to $26.5 million guaranteed with a signature. He's been evaluated on the context of who he isn't without much thought to what he could bring to the table.

And just what has Mario Williams brought for us to eat? A heapin' helpin' of crow.

Bon appetit.

Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at readers@bomanijones.com.




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