Once just a two-team horse race, the Reggie Bush Derby has suddenly been joined by several more entries, and it may take the NFL equivalent of a photo finish next Sunday evening to determine the outcome of the chase for the top spot in the 2006 draft.
With the possibility that Bush, under at least one scenario, could be knocked out of the winner's circle.
By virtue of a league-worst 2-13 record entering the NFL's final weekend of the regular season, the Houston Texans, who have been the favorite since about the halfway pole of the year, remain in first place. But a burgeoning field of also-rans has gained ground on the Texans and, as the league heads toward the wire, the suitors for the top overall pick in the draft have dramatically increased.
The Texans can make things simple by losing at San Francisco on Sunday and finishing this dismal season, one that will almost certainly result in a major organizational shakeup, with a 2-14 mark. Under that scenario, the Texans would win the top spot outright, and there are indications that Houston would select Bush.
But if the Texans defeat the 49ers, hardly implausible given that they have been a bit more competitive the past few weeks, both Houston and San Francisco would complete the year with matching 3-13 records. Compounding the situation is the fact that three more teams -- New Orleans, Green Bay and the New York Jets -- could also finish 3-13 if all lose their regular-season finales.
The tiebreaker for determining the draft's No. 1 spot, whether it's two teams tied for the dubious honor or five franchises, is each club's strength of schedule. Or, more accurately, their weakness of schedule. The 2005 records of each team's opponents would be totaled and the franchise that played the "easiest" schedule would land the first pick. And under that scenario, the displaced Saints could sneak into the top spot.
New Orleans' opponents have an aggregate winning mark of just .507. Then, in order, comes Green Bay (.520), the Jets (.547), Houston (.556) and San Francisco (.573), according to the league. Final analysis of strength of schedule standings cannot be determined until after all Sunday's games are completed. But it is conceivable that the Texans, who have essentially led the race all year, could fade in the stretch if they defeat the 49ers.
Houston coach Dom Capers, who is expected to be fired next week, said he understands that Texans fans might be pulling for the team to land Bush, an exciting player who has the football skills and charisma to potentially transform a franchise. But Capers said his team will go to San Francisco and try to close out the season with a victory.
"Well, I think probably the last month or so, there's been a lot of that sentiment (to gain the right to Bush)," Capers said. "When you're a coach or a player, you never think about that kind of stuff. From a coaching standpoint, your job is to try to win every week. I think there's probably a lot of that sentiment outside (the team), but if you polled our team or our coaching staff, we want to go to San Francisco and finish this season, as difficult as it's been, on a positive note."
As recently as the 2004 draft there was a multi-team tie, with four teams finishing the '03 season with matching 4-12 marks. San Diego won the top pick in the strength of schedule tiebreaker, over Oakland, Arizona and the New York Giants. The Chargers selected Eli Manning and then, in a landmark deal just an hour later, traded him to the Giants for a package that included fellow quarterback Philip Rivers.
Just once in the last 10 years has the tiebreaker process come into play in determining the draft's top spot. In two other circumstances where it should have, both the 1999 and 2001 drafts, there were expansion teams coming into the league and they were awarded the No. 1 overall selection.
Were the Saints to secure the top pick, it might alter the landscape of the '06 draft, and could keep Bush from being the top player chosen. The Saints already have a standout tailback in Deuce McAllister and, even though he is currently rehabilitating from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the New Orleans star is expected to be fully recovered well in advance of training camp. Plus, the Saints last summer signed McAllister to a new $50.1 million contract and would probably be reluctant to make another lucrative investment in the tailback position.
New Orleans, which will probably jettison veteran quarterback Aaron Brooks after the season, might be more inclined to address its needs at that critical position. And that could thrust Bush's Southern California teammate and fellow Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart, into the top spot. Then again, given that Saints owner Tom Benson claims to have lost $45 million this season as a result of Hurricane Katrina, he might not want the top spot and the financial realities one incurs with it, and could trade the pick.
While the draft evaluation process is only in the early stages, the perception is that all the other contenders for the top pick would be interested in Bush, who is regarded by scouts as a once-in-a-generation prospect.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.