As of May 1, 2011 Reggie Bush's future with the Saints is in uncharted territory and, simply put, uncertain. While the Saints' front office has continued to reiterate their desire to retain Bush as a cog in their offensive machine, speculation remains rampant as to whether Bush will indeed re-work his contract and willingly return to New Orleans.
By now, Bush's infamous tweet that almost immediately followed the first round selection of Mark Ingram ("it's been fun, New Orleans") has been dissected, analyzed, and commented on to the nth degree. At this point, it's seemingly Bush's decision on whether he will or will not remain a member of the Saints.
Reggie Bush occupies a rarefied, unique space in Saints' lore. Bush's arrival in 2006 symbolized a new beginning for the franchise's direction, and the city's love affair with Bush has been as intense as it's been conflicted. While his otherworldly athleticism has tantalized fans and tortured opponents, Bush has also polarized much of the Saints' fan base with his maddening inconsistency and his injury-plagued nature; to this day, his true value to the team remains a hotly-contested topic among Saints' diehards. Regardless, Bush--in my opinion--remains one of the most beloved Saints of the modern era. If you don't believe that, just listen to the Dome chant "Reggie!, Reggie!" at every opportune moment. When it comes down to brass tacks, the fans love him. For the entirety of his tenure in New Orleans, Reggie Bush has maintained a true, team-first professionalism in the face of unrealized expectations, self-inflicted hype, recurring injuries, and lingering NCAA controversy. Yet in the face of continued scrutiny from all angles, Bush has been a valuable, productive player.
So what is Bush's true value to the Saints over his 5-year career? What does his career statistical profile look like? How have the Saints fared with and without him? And finally, will Bush remain a Saint or will he seek a fresh start elsewhere? Let's take a look.
Bush has been on the Saints' roster for 86 regular + post season games. He has played in 66 of those games and missed the other 20 due to injury. The unfortunate fact is that he's missed 23% of games since he's been a Saint. Without question, the lingering injuries have overshadowed and diminished what has otherwise been effective, if unspectacular, production.
In the 66 games he's played ...
... he's averaged 13.3 touches (rushes + receptions) for 71.3 yards
... he's scored 38 TDs for a .58 TD Factor
... he's fumbled (lost fumbles) 11 times for a .16 Fumble Factor
In Saints' victories with Bush, he's averaged 12.9 touches for 72.7 yards and a .68 TD Factor. In Saints' losses with Bush, he's averaged 13.9 touches for 69.1 yards and a .42 TD Factor. So basically, the Saints have won more often when Bush is more efficient with fewer touches and, generally, when he has scored TDs (duh).
More specifically, in the games Bush has scored a TD, the Saints are 19-8 (70.4%). In the games he's played, but did not score, the Saints are 21-18 (53.8%). The strong correlation between Bush's TDs and Saints' victories means that when Bush scores, the Saints win a high percentage of the time. When he doesn't, the Saints are just mediocre. On top of that, in the 11 games that he's lost a fumble, the Saints are 5-6.
So are the Saints too dependent on Bush's performance, game in-game out?
The Saints are 40-26 (60.6%) when Bush plays and 13-7 (65%) in games he's missed. In the games he's played, the Saints have averaged 26.3 points/game. In the games he's missed, the Saints have averaged 29.8 points/game. So according to the sample, without Bush, the Saints won a bit more: +4.4%. And they've scored a bit more: +3.5 points/game.
Are the Saints actually a better team without Reggie Bush? Whether the above numbers are indicative of Bush's value to the Saints is, at best, murky. One, are the sample sizes large enough to reach a meaningful conclusion? Two, are there other factors that contribute to or more effectively determine value (offensive game plans, opposing defensive schemes, leadership/locker room/team chemistry factors, etc.)?
The ultimate question to ask yourself is "Are the Saints better with Reggie Bush on the roster?" I say yes, even though rudimentary statistics might indicate otherwise. We know that Sean Payton has more flexibility in designing a gameplan with Bush at his disposal. We know that opposing defenses have a more complex task of defending the Saints when Bush plays. We know that Bush can singlehandedly win games at his electric best (remember the playoff game vs. Arizona, or the 49ers game in 2006?). We know that Brees fully trusts Bush with protection schemes and blocking (after all, what's more important than protecting Brees?). We know that Bush has been a model teammate and citizen in New Orleans. We might infer that Bush's presence has positively influenced potential free agents into viewing New Orleans as an attractive destination to play. We might surmise that Bush has elevated the level of play of those around him due to his work ethic, professionalism, and winning pedigree.
In the end, I'm hopeful that the Saints and Reggie Bush will come to an agreement. I believe that there's no better place for Bush to play than New Orleans. I believe that if winning Super Bowls is most important to Bush, then New Orleans is the best choice. And I finally believe the Saints have a better shot at winning another Super Bowl with Bush than they do without him. And that's mostly what matters.
If Reggie Bush opts to test the market and ultimately play elsewhere, where might he go? What teams would present the ideal environments for him? When I first considered this question, my initial thought was that he would need to play in a dome as much as possible. But maybe not. Here is the breakdown of Bush's career output in domed vs. non-domed stadiums:
... Domes: 39 games; 12.6 touches/game, 66 ypg, 26 TDs (.66 TD Factor)
... Non-Domes: 27 games; 14.4 touches/game, 78.7 ypg,12 TDs (.44 TD Factor)
The main differences? Reggie scores more in domes, yet gains more yardage with a better avg./touch in outdoor stadiums. If nothing else, these numbers at least refute the notion that Bush can't be effective outside of a dome.
Here are some potential suitors for Reggie's services:
San Diego - This is an obvious destination given that it's Bush's hometown. Additionally, with the pending loss of Darren Sproles to free agency, the Chargers will have an immediate need to fill Sproles' role. Bush fits nicely into this category as a pass-catching RB and punt returner. The prospect of playing with Philip Rivers on a winning team is also likely attractive to Bush.
Atlanta - Obviously, this is a scary scenario for Saints' fans. But with Atlanta in full 'win-now' mode, Bush makes sense as an additional playmaker for an offense that struggled with explosiveness in 2010. The prospect of remaining in the NFC South and playing the Saints twice a year might be an attractive proposition if Bush feels slighted in any way. Finally, there's a history of top Saints players becoming Falcons later in their careers (B. Hebert, M. Andersen, J. Horn, etc.). Could Bush be next?
St. Louis - The Rams make a ton of sense as a landing spot for Bush. Playing on a fast track indoors with rising star Sam Bradford in a weak division would be ideal for Bush. Coupled with that fact is the presence of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels who, like Sean Payton, is lauded for creativity and aggressiveness; McDaniels could certainly make use of Bush in a variety of ways offensively and as an ideal complement to Steven Jackson.
Seattle - Maybe the only reason the Seahawks loom as a potential destination is Pete Carroll. But do we know the true extent of Bush's relationship with his college coach? Is there bad blood between the two stemming from the NCAA investigation and USC's decision to distance itself from Bush in the aftermath? Aside from that possibility, Bush duplicates skill sets with Justin Forsett who has been quietly effective in Seattle. This seems like an unlikely landing spot, in my opinion.
Indianapolis - The Colts are probably a dark-horse candidate for Bush's services. But Bush's winning pedigree is likely an attractive option, as is his high football IQ, his pass-catching skills, and his explosiveness indoors. Playing aside Peyton Manning would obviously be attractive, while the Colts could seek to diversify to their RB stable and infuse it with big-play ability that was lacking in 2010.
San Francisco - Playing on the West Coast might be ideal for Bush if he seeks a new start elsewhere. The 49ers could use Bush as a complement to an aging Frank Gore, and to add another weapon to an offense that was inconsistent and sometimes stagnant in 2010. With Jim Harbaugh leading a new era in San Francisco, Bush might be attractive as a veteran leader and proven winner for a resurgent franchise.
Houston - The Texans are another dark-horse candidate for Bush's services, and coach Gary Kubiak could certainly integrate Bush into an already diverse, explosive offense. Attractive for Bush would be playing indoors; playing with a QB in Matt Schaub who has shown flashes of elite talent; and filling the role of pass-catching RB that Steve Slaton may no longer be around to fill. Lastly, the prospect of playing alongside fellow 2006 draftmate Mario Williams would provide an ironic bit of symmetry and an interesting storyline for 2011.
postpostscript 5/6 - I mindlessly forgot to add Tampa Bay to potential destinations for Reggie. And after all, it might be the most likely landing spot. Let us hope not.