Bush looks for redemption in playoffs

Musical artists from Stevie Wonder to Rihanna have covered one of Bob Marley’s greatest hits.

But from an NFL standpoint, there is no greater "Redemption Song" this postseason than the one being played by New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush.

Forget about keeping up with the Kardashians. For most of 2009, Bush couldn’t keep pace with the other rushers on his own team. While still a dangerous punt returner, injuries and the emergence of others had relegated Bush to a more limited role than in his three previous NFL seasons. Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell led the team in carries, while Lynell Hamilton morphed into the goal-line back.

What do those three RBs have in common? None were drafted, let alone with the No. 2 overall pick like the heavily-hyped Bush in 2006.

Bush, though, finally performed like the “star” he proclaims himself to be in last Saturday’s second-round playoff rout of Arizona. It wasn’t just the 217 all-purpose yards and punt return for touchdown Bush amassed that was so impressive. It was the manner in which he punished the Cardinals’ defense.

Bush was the living embodiment of the “Bring the Wood” motto that Saints coach Sean Payton placed on baseball bats as a pregame motivational tool. The 6-foot, 203-pound Bush was a bull between the tackles, lowering his shoulder and seemingly looking for contact on each of his five carries – including one that went 46 yards for a touchdown.

The effort was so impressive that I’m still not sure whether Bush and former Saints great Deuce McAllister secretly switched jerseys in the locker room before kickoff.

While he had flashed such power before, some of Bush’s teammates notice a significant difference in a player whose finesse style at USC hadn’t translated to as much success in the pros. Bush wasn’t a complete bust. But after a solid rookie season, he hasn’t proven worthy of such lofty draft status and the six-year, $52.5 million contract – including $26.3 million guaranteed – that came with it.

Although claiming he doesn’t pay attention to outside criticism, Bush knew something had to change this season. And it finally did last weekend. His hard work in the 2009 offseason and Payton’s decision to temper Bush’s regular-season workload coming off microfracture knee surgery paid dividends and may do so again in Sunday’s NFC title game against visiting Minnesota.

“You’ve got to learn how to be a running back in this league,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who joined the Saints in Bush’s rookie year. “It’s different than running circles around people in college.

“The game is very, very physical. It’s a long season. You have to learn how to do things in what we call ‘Being a professional.’ You take care of your body, do the maintenance, the film study, the preparation … It’s no longer going to school during the day and going to practice in the afternoon. This is your full time job now.”

The 24-year-old Bush admits it took him some time to realize that. Bush had a career-low 70 carries during the regular season, but his 5.6-yard average was almost two yards greater than his previous career high.

“What I try to remember is just to have fun and not think about pressure,” Bush said Wednesday inside the Saints locker room. “Working on my assignments, being a difference-maker and doing whatever I can.

“That’s something you learn as time goes on. The younger you are, the more immature you are. I’ve had four years of experience, so I know what this is about.”

The Vikings know all too well what Bush is about when hot. In 2008, he returned two punts for touchdowns and added 93 scrimmage yards during a 30-27 Saints loss.

Asked about Bush on Wednesday, Vikings coach Brad Childress said, “At times, he’s a decoy. At times, they’re attempting to get the ball to him whether as a runner, a reverse runner, an inside runner, a receiver with a mismatch. You better be mindful of where he’s at.”

It’s fair to wonder where Bush will be next season. Even if the NFL doesn’t have a salary cap as expected, Bush’s $8 million salary seems exorbitant, especially considering his history of injury and modest production. Without agreeing to a restructured contract, Bush could be placed on the trading block or eventually released.

Bush, though, can state his case by leading the Saints past the Vikings and into Super Bowl XLIV.

“I’ve always felt it’s a running back’s job to set the tone for the game,” Bush said. “We’re going to try to do that and we’ll see where we go from there.”