Saints must find room for two starting-caliber TBs

Originally Published: May 16, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

METAIRIE, La. -- First-year coach Sean Payton is one of the NFL's most creative young minds, but when it came time Saturday morning to introduce his prize pupil to the New Orleans offense, the Saints' new boss adopted a decidedly old-school approach.

Call it the "Three R's" tutorial method -- remedial, rudimentary and realistic -- for the biggest new "R-guy" in the city, first-round tailback Reggie Bush.

During the initial 11-on-11 drill of Saturday morning's practice, Bush wasn't hard to find, and not just because he was in his familiar uniform No. 5 as he awaits a league ruling on whether he'll be allowed to wear it during the season. On the seven snaps in which he was in the lineup, Bush was primarily aligned as a tailback, either in a one-back formation or a two-back set with the fullback offset to one side. Just once, on the final play of the drill, did Bush wander out into the slot, from where he ran a short slant route.

"He's just so smooth, you can't help but watch him. I know this much: I'm glad he's on our side and that I'm not going to have to worry about tackling him for the next 10 years."
Saints rookie FS Roman Harper

It was strictly primer stuff, the football equivalent of a minicamp play list that read "See Reggie run," and it was intended to allow Bush and the other rookies assembled for three days of workouts an opportunity to get their feet on the ground before the veterans arrive for organized team activities. It was also, Bush suggested afterward, probably nothing like what the Saints' offense will look like when the entire package is installed.

"I'm sure," Bush said, "there's a lot more to come."

No doubt, there is.

Bush is a player whose skills set is so unique it all but begs for a fourth "R," to be added -- revolutionary, perhaps, would be the word -- and that is part of the task Payton and his staff have undertaken as they assess the best ways to get the ball into the hands of the Heisman Trophy winner. Some of the stories that have emerged since Bush fell into the laps of Saints officials -- that Payton and his coaches began immediately rewriting the playbook as soon as the Houston Texans announced on the night before the draft they were selecting defensive end Mario Williams -- seem a bit apocryphal.

For sure, though, some editing is in order. Melding an unusual player into any offense -- particularly one that already possessed a standout tailback in Deuce McAllister -- is a challenge. But the Saints knew what they were getting into when they snatched Bush, the highest-rated player on their draft board. Unlike the Texans, in deciding not to look a gifted Trojans' horse in the mouth, the New Orleans staff gleefully took on the challenge of trying to design an offense that could accommodate two feature-type tailbacks.

The rub is, there really is no traditional template, no offensive manual Payton can turn to. It was easy for Payton to adopt one of Bill Parcells' minicamp traditions -- removing all the logos from the helmets of his charges, and leaving the headgears bare, except for one piece of athletic tape with the player's name on it -- but it isn't as if he can phone his old boss for advice on how to blend Bush and McAllister. There just aren't many precedents, at least in the modern game, for having two such talents in the same backfield.

And so Payton exhaustively has plumbed the best learning source available to him: tapes from Southern California games, in which Bush and LenDale White were the potent backfield tandem. He has scrutinized St. Louis Rams tapes to see how the team used Marshall Faulk, a player Bush is often compared to. In general, the New Orleans' film room is piled high with "cut-ups," snippets of videotape that is broken down by situations, like down-and-distance or types of plays.

This hint: Expect a lot of motion from the New Orleans offense. Defenses will have to react not so much to where Bush and McAllister are aligned when the huddle breaks, but rather to where they are when the ball is snapped.

"It's not unlike what we did when we signed [quarterback] Drew Brees," Payton said. "You go back and look at what he did at San Diego, the passes he was comfortable throwing, the routes he liked most, things like that. You want your guys to be comfortable and you want them to succeed. Let them be themselves and do what they do best. That's all we're trying to do with Reggie."

Payton has one edge in that he was an assistant at San Diego State for part of Faulk's career there, but the advantage might not be a significant one. For all the comparisons to Faulk and Barry Sanders, Bush isn't exactly like either of those players, although he does share some of their attributes. Bush, though, isn't as thickly built as either of those tailbacks. At 202 pounds, and with a well-defined upper body and large arms, he probably can't add much more weight. And his joints, particularly his ankles and wrists, are reed-thin. Still, Payton is convinced that Bush is a running back, not a curiosity item, and has approached the chore of defining the USC star's role in that light.

Said Bush: "Everyone talks about having to get me out in space, where I can make people miss, and run past all those defenders. Well, I can create space, too. Give me the ball and you'll see. I just figure coach Payton and his guys will figure it out. There's enough ways, I'm sure, for me and [McAllister] to get the ball in our hands."

It probably isn't as facile a process, though, as Bush and others have suggested it might be.

Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesBush figures to see time in one- and two-back formations for the Saints.

In his three college seasons, Bush logged 20 or more carries in only three games, all of them in 2005. On the other hand, there were six games in 2005 in which he registered 20 touches, including returns, and three games in which Bush touched the ball more than 30 times. Of his 6,581 all-purpose yards at Southern Cal, just 48.1 percent of them came as a running back.

On the other hand, McAllister, coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament that limited him to five games in 2005, is a traditional workhorse-type back. Over the past four seasons, McAllister started and finished 47 contests. In that span, he averaged 21.6 rushing attempts per game, and had 17 outings with 25 or more rushes and four with 30 or more.

Of course, with McAllister coming off an injury, his effectiveness actually might be maximized, at least early in the season, if his workload is reduced from past levels. Still, the five-year veteran is at his best when he is pounding away at defenses. And as he demonstrated in brief glimpses on Saturday morning before a strained left hamstring sidelined him for the balance of the minicamp, Bush is electrifying when he is running away from them.

"Just in the little things he does out there, you can see how easy it comes for him," said free safety Roman Harper, the Saints' second-round draft choice. "He definitely comes as advertised. I mean, he's just so smooth, you can't help but watch him. I know this much: I'm glad he's on our side and that I'm not going to have to worry about tackling him for the next 10 years."

The responsibility of conjuring up a way to couple his two star backs aside, Payton is pretty happy, too, at the specter of Bush weaving through defenses.

"Getting this all figured out," Payton said, smiling, "is a fun challenge to have."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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