Reporting from New Orleans — Reggie Bush is not an every-down running back for the New Orleans Saints.
Question is, can he be an every-Sunday one?
Seldom in his four-year NFL career has the former USC Heisman Trophy winner strung together productive performances in consecutive weeks. And the Saints, who are one win away from their first Super Bowl, would welcome a big game from him.
"I try to be a difference-maker, especially in games like these," said Bush, whose team plays host to the Minnesota Vikings today in the NFC championship game. "These are big games. These are games when your stars need to show up and make big plays . . . "
Bush certainly did that last weekend, running with a decisiveness and explosive aggression he has rarely shown since the Saints made him the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft. He gained 84 yards in five carries in a 45-14 victory over Arizona, more than half of which came on a 46-yard touchdown that began with his twisting his way out of a tackle. He added another score on an 83-yard punt return.
It was a timely display of toughness from a player who has suffered knee injuries each of the last three seasons, setbacks that had him sit out 12 of 49 games since he played all 16 (and two in the playoffs) as a rookie.
"To me, he's the X-factor" against the Vikings, NBC's Cris Collinsworth said. "He's the guy that we just haven't seen put up that kind of production and that sort of physical running style. That's the Reggie Bush we've all been waiting to see.
"If he can match that kind of production over the next two games, the Saints will be world champions."
By no means are the Saints lost without him. In fact, since 2007, the Saints have more yards and points -- and a better winning percentage -- playing without Bush than with him. In the 12 games without him, the team has averaged 33.3 points, 430.6 yards, and is 8-4 (.667). In 37 games with him, New Orleans averaged 26.9 points, 380.1 yards, and is 21-16 (.568).
That's not to suggest Bush isn't an asset, but that the Saints are loaded with weapons, so much so that taking one player out of the equation only creates opportunity for another in their top-ranked offense to shine.
Bush's productivity has come under particular scrutiny lately because of his enormous salary. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, his average of $8.75 million a year and $26.25 million in guaranteed dollars are the highest of any running back in the NFL. That for a player whose lone 100-yard rushing game came three years ago.
"I don't feel any pressure at all," Bush said last week. "When my number's called, I do what I can. I try to make the most of my opportunities and make plays when I can."
The Vikings are all too familiar with the damage Bush can do. In a Monday night game at the Superdome last season, he ran back two punts for touchdowns against Minnesota, and probably would have scored a third had he not slipped. Somehow, the Vikings escaped with a 30-27 victory, although Coach Brad Childress was irate afterward. He had instructed punter Chris Kluwe to angle his kicks out of bounds.
This time, there will be no confusion.
"I think that we will go back and revisit our last trip we had to the dome and probably have a little sit-down about that to see if either one of us has evolved in our processes in communicating that," Childress said. "I don't want to give any competitive advantage to how or where we will kick the ball."
It's clear that Bush is at his best when he's in open space and can use his speed to pull away from defenders, as opposed to running over them. That speed disparity was stark in college, when would leave would-be tacklers hugging air.
An oft-repeated argument is that Bush's offensive line at USC was so dominant, it made him look even better than he actually was.
But two of his former linemen, now both NFL starters, disagree.
"I remember watching the tape of that Fresno State game, and we didn't block them up that well, and he just made some ridiculous plays," said Sam Baker, now left tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, referring to a 2005 game in which Bush set a Pacific 10 Conference record by gaining 513 all-purpose yards.
"I'd like to say we did a pretty good job blocking for him, but he's such a special athlete that I can't say it was all us."
Former Trojans center Ryan Kalil, who now plays for Carolina, said some people hold Bush to superhuman standards on the field, but that Bush never had unrealistic expectations about what he'd be able to do in the pros.
"There wasn't any ignorance on his part," Kalil said. "At no time did he ever feel like going into the league was going to be a cakewalk or as easy as college. He didn't have any false sense of what the competition was going to be like."
Kalil said Bush has rare skills that sometimes even people on the sideline cannot fully appreciate.
"Coaches will tell you, 'Oh, that hole's so big even I could run through it,' " he said. "But what's different between those fat old coaches and guys like Reggie is when they get to those holes, they make 20 guys miss and make some magic happen and turn what should have been a five-yard gain into a big gain or a touchdown."
Today, Bush has another chance to remind the Saints that, while tacklers might miss on him, the franchise did not.