By: Eric Thomas
Reggie Bush tweaked his ankle at Lions’ minicamp on Wednesday. As he walked it off, the air felt thin from the drag of many audible gasps. Even the players, usually accustomed to the ins and outs and injuries of professional football, seemed especially concerned. They know the truth. Reggie Bush, though he has never played an official down in Honolulu blue, is at minimum the third most important Lion. Simply stated, without Reggie Bush, the Lions have no chance of improving in 2013. He must stay healthy.
A familiar theme strummed through the post-practice comments. Sure, every player was asked about the Lions’ new free agent quarterback, why wouldn’t they be? Bush was all world at USC, his high school tapes were passed around among football geeks with an intensity usually associated with recordings of individual Phish performances. He was a disappointment in New Orleans only by measure of expectation. His career turned a corner in Miami when he proved he could run between the tackles and act as an every down back. At Lions’ minicamp, every player’s comments reflected what Bush has come to represent to the team.
Nate Burleson, Calvin Johnson, and Scott Linehan all said some variation of the following phrase: It will be like when Jahvid Best was healthy. The players seemed to know that the team needed that specific skill out of the backfield. Moreover, the Lions needed Reggie Bush specifically. His skills fit the Lions’ offense like a proverbial glove. Even Bush himself said, “You talk about what they were able to do when they had Jahvid Best, they were able to do something special.”
He’s right. Jahvid Best’s career with the Lions likely ended in the second half of their home game against the 49ers in 2011. When he left, the Lions were undefeated; 5-0 for the first time in the living memory of most fans. They’ve gone a paltry 9-18 since—not nearly the balanced, pick-your-poison attack the team showed in their first five wins. It’s shocking, when considering the night and day difference between the team’s performances, that there wasn’t more emphasis on filling that void going into the 2012 season.
Mikel Leshoure needs another gear. Joique Bell is an uplifting story but he lacks elusiveness. Best’s absence has been a chasm, unfilled until Reggie Bush pulled on a jersey and announced his free agent tour was over.
After the Packers won the Super Bowl, the new mantra among fans became that the NFL no longer required a running game to win. It’s an understandable argument, now that the league penalizes corners for what used to be considered basic defense. That argument completely ignores the fact that the Packers, along with many other “pass first” teams, always have a threat to catch out of the backfield. Aaron Rogers always has a dump off option. Screens are considered part of the passing attack but they require a back with some speed and hands, and teams like New Orleans and Green Bay lean heavily on the screen.
The Lions didn’t merely lack a running game in 2012; they lacked any threat out of the backfield at all. The screen play was rendered useless; Stafford had one option for much of the season. Granted, if you’re going to have one option, you might as well have the best option in football—but having one option is a recipe for disaster in the NFL. Perhaps it’s more accurately a recipe for a four win season, which is exactly what they got.
Glover Quin was a quality pick up, he’s going to help. Ziggy Ansah has an upside the size of the CN Tower, but it’s all meaningless unless Reggie Bush stays healthy. I’m hoping Reggie gets the Barry Sanders flu before preseason. For all the talk of Schwartz’s hot seat and Stafford’s contract, the entire season rides on the effectiveness of number 21.
The Lions could break out this season. They’re poised for a breakout year with Green Bay getting old, Chicago retooling and Adrian Peterson on the cover of the “new school” edition of Madden. Fingers crossed.