Bush League

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Published: January 22, 2007  NEW YORK TIMES writer

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 Southern California.

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 direction.

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 moment.”

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 boost.

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.