CHICAGO, Jan. 21 — The New
Orleans Saints rookie Reggie Bush received the pass from quarterback Drew
Brees and kept running. He froze Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris along the
sideline, then cut toward the middle of the field, shifted into high gear and
peeled away from his pursuers.
After 32 minutes of stalled drives and assorted mishaps by the Saints in
their first National Football Conference championship game appearance, Bush
could suddenly see all the way from Soldier Field to Miami.
Ten yards from the end zone, Bush slowed just enough to glance over his
shoulder and point in the direction of the nearest Bears player giving chase,
linebacker Brian Urlacher. A few yards later, he launched himself into the air,
somersaulting into the end zone the way he used to during his collegiate days at
The scoring play covered 88 yards and cut the Saints’ deficit to 16-14
against the front-running and favored Bears. After taunting Urlacher and
tumbling into the end zone, Bush capped his celebration with a dance.
It was a resplendent play and a rookie mistake rolled into one, and it
perfectly summed up the Saints as a whole. Under their first-year coach, Sean
Payton, the Saints got far on exuberance and effort but in the end could not
hide their inexperience.
The Bears would have the last dance. With their 39-14 victory, they advanced
to Super Bowl XLI in Miami against the Indianapolis
Colts. To hear the victors talk, Bush pointed the Bears in the right
Bush league was what Bears defensive end Adewale
Ogunleye called the taunting gesture. “He’s
going to be a great player for some time,”
Ogunleye said, “but to turn around and taunt
Brian — taunt basically this whole team — was a slap in the face, and I’m
glad we responded.”
When he got to the sideline, Bush did not need to be told that he had gone
too far in his celebration. He cut off Payton’s lecture with an apology. “I
was excited,” he said. “It was a big play. I let my emotions get the best of
me.” He added, “I was just happy to make a big play for my team at a crucial
Until that point, the Saints had had incredible difficulty moving the ball
against the Bears’ eight-man front. Their offense seemed to be marching uphill
in the first half, with Brees passing for 166 yards and Bush and Deuce
McAllister combining for 18 yards rushing. The Saints converted only 1 of 7
third downs in the opening 30 minutes. So Bush’s quick score brought a huge
But Bush’s celebration also fired up the Bears,
whose defense showed more teeth after that. “Obviously I knew I made a
mistake,” Bush said. “I’m not going to kill myself over it.”
The Saints made enough mistakes to fill a couple of blooper reels. Brees lost
one fumble and was also intercepted. Marques Colston, the rookie receiver out of
Hofstra, was stripped of the ball after making a nice catch, and Michael Lewis
turned the ball over on a kickoff return, both in the first quarter.
And yet, despite their miscues, the Saints were poised to take the lead with
seven minutes left in the third quarter. On their next possession after Bush’s
score, the Saints drove 53 yards to the Bears’ 29.
Billy Cundiff, the Saints’ kickoff specialist, was summoned to attempt a
47-yard field goal into a stiff wind. He has a stronger leg than the regular
field-goal kicker, John Carney, but it was not quite strong enough. His attempt
fell short, and as the point of the ball hit the turf, it was as if it punctured
the Saints’ momentum.
The Bears had been pressuring Brees to great effect, and late in the third
quarter, with the Saints pinned on their 5-yard line, the Bears received a
2-point payoff. They blitzed, and Brees was forced to make a quick throw from
the end zone.
With his receivers covered downfield, he attempted an outlet pass to
McAllister. It was a sound plan, except that McAllister had stayed in the
backfield to block a blitzing defender. Brees was called for intentional
grounding, and the Bears were credited with a safety, giving them an 18-14 lead.
The Bears managed to strip the Saints’ offense of its versatility. Of the
18 plays from scrimmage that the Saints ran in the pivotal third quarter, only
three were runs. “We maybe kind of had to hit the panic button a little
bit,” Bush said.
In their victory against Philadelphia in the second round, the Saints had 208
yards rushing. On Sunday, they finished with 56. Bush had 19 yards on 4 carries,
1 yard more than McAllister.
“They did a good job of trying to take away our running game and make us
throw the ball,” McAllister said. “We didn’t execute.”
Bush’s touchdown gave the Saints hope. “After Reggie scored, we felt like
we had the momentum,” McAllister said. The Saints will no doubt spend the
off-season reflecting on all the ways they let it get away.