DAVIE, Fla. — Each year in his NFL career, there were questions surrounding Reggie Bush. Could he live up to being the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft? Could he be an every-down back? Could he stay healthy?
Now, as Bush prepares to enter his seventh season, critics are having a harder time finding fault with the Dolphins running back. That’s what happens after a 1,086-yard rushing season that included 519 yards in the final four games he played and only one game missed due to injury.
“This may be the first time where I’m not really being questioned,’’ Bush said of this Miami training camp. “I still always, always take the highest expectations from myself, and I always seek out the highest goals. I think I always drive to push myself to the limit no matter what it is.’’
That’s why Bush, 27, has some inflated goals for the season. He wants to lead the NFL in rushing. He’s even set a target for every play in which he’s handed the ball.
“My first goal is to every time I touch the ball just run for at least four yards,’’ said Bush, who averaged an impressive 5.0 yards per carry last season on the way to his first 1,000-yard campaign.
One thinks Bush will be willing to make a few exceptions. Two of his six rushing touchdowns last season were from fewer than four yards out.
In his first six years, all with New Orleans, Bush wasn’t used as an every-down back and only once did he lead the Saints in seasonal rushing attempts. He often was considered more valuable catching passes or returning punts.
Bush also had a hard time staying healthy. He missed 20 games from 2007-10.
But Bush became Miami’s workhorse last season. He carried a career-high 216 times, including 83 during the final four games he played before missing the finale due to a knee injury. Bush had 100 or more yards in each of those games, including a career-high 203-yard showing at Buffalo.
“I don’t know if I proved them wrong or not because I could really care less if I did or not,’’ Bush said of doubts entering last season on whether he could be an every-down back. “It was more about me just coming in here and taking on that spot to be the every-down back if they needed me to be and carrying the workload if they needed that and being a leader to some of the younger guys coming in here.
“That was more of my focus. Really wasn’t focused on proving people wrong and proving what I could and couldn’t do. I always knew what I’m capable of doing. It’s just about the matter of the opportunity to get to be able to show that.’’
Bush may not say it, but reserve running back Steve Slaton will. Yes, Bush proved the doubters wrong.
“I think he did a lot,’’ said Slaton, who rushed for 1,282 yards as a rookie with Houston in 2008. “Especially at the end of the year. Teams are going to game plan for you, and then he still rushed for 500 yards (in those four games).’’
Teams might prepare even more this season for Bush. The Dolphins lost a big-play receiver in Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, who was traded to Chicago. And it remains to be seen how much inexperience will be shown by Ryan Tannehill, set to become the first rookie quarterback in Miami’s 47-year history to start his first game.
But Bush’s teammates don’t seem too worried. They expect to see the same running back they did at the end of last season.
“Bush is a guy that every time he touches the ball, we all know he can go the distance, and that’s what makes him such a scary player is that he creates match-up problems,’’ said linebacker Kevin Burnett. “Whether he’s catching or running, he’s always a threat to go from the 1-yard line to the 50 to the 1-yard line. You never know.’’
During his 203-yard game against the Bills, Bush had a 76-yard TD run. He was so fired up he got an unsportsmanlike penalty for sliding feet first through the end zone on the wet field.
But Bush insists he’s not looking back much on how he finished last season. He wants to continue to improve.
“Obviously, you use it as a little motivation, just to want to continue those strides,’’ Bush said. “But, for the most part, I just try to focus on this being a completely different year, new year, starting from scratch and not really living in the past. But more so looking ahead and seeing how I can get better.”
Even if he’s the same player, the Dolphins won’t mind.
“I hope so,’’ coach Joe Philbin said of a repeat performance from Bush’s final four games of last season. “That would be great. I’d take that. (About) 125 (yards) a game. Sounds good to me.”