Free agency rarely brings more than one or two notable signings per offseason for the San Francisco 49ers under Trent Baalke’s watch. Of the handful of March additions that went on to play meaningful snaps for the 49ers in recent seasons, nearly all have lined up on the defensive side of the ball. Baalke’s best offensive signing entering this offseason was Jonathan Goodwin, who served the duration of his three-year contract manning the fulcrum of San Francisco’s offensive line before returning to New Orleans a year ago. Goodwin aside, the 49ers’ offensive free agent additions have consisted of over-the-hill wide receivers and running backs who failed to move the needle.
While Baalke broke that mold by signing Torrey Smith to a long-term deal, Reggie Bush fits right in with the Brandon Lloyd-Randy Moss-Brandon Jacobs types that came before him.
Each of those previous signings shared a common archetype: they were veteran, buy-low candidates — whether due to age, injury, performance, or some combination — brought in on short-term deals with the hope they could bounce back and add a missing element to the 49ers’ offense at a bargain-bin price. Sound familiar?
Bush — who recently turned 30, battled ankle and back injuries in 2014, and is coming off one of his worst NFL seasons — hits all three of the buy-low checkboxes. Like his predecessors, Bush will be asked to provide a dimension San Francisco’s offense could undoubtedly use. And if his 2014 tape is any indication, Bush isn’t up to the task.
Bush has never provided a lot of value on the ground, even on a per-play basis, having finished with a positive rushing DVOA just once in his nine seasons.1 Even when Bush hovered around 1000 yards per season from 2011–13 as a psuedo-primary back in Miami and Detroit, he was brutally inconsistent. For every 100-yard performance, there were two or three 12-for–31 or 20-for–50 efforts.
When Bush was on the field in 2014, the good games mostly disappeared. Including the playoffs, Bush carried the ball 84 times a year ago and 38 of those carries (45 percent) netted two yards or less. Bush would display flashes of competence just often enough to suck you in — one in roughly 10 carries went for double-digit yardage — but on most plays Bush could only manage to get the yards blocked for him, if that. There was perhaps no better representation of what Bush currently offers as a runner than the Lions’ Wild Card match-up against the Cowboys — in just eight carries, we got the entire Reggie Bush experience.
Early in the game, Bush gave us one of the flashes. After taking the handoff, Bush makes a nice jump cut to avoid trouble in the backfield and follows it up with another on Orlando Scandrick (32) to get to the outside. Bush picks up a couple of nice downfield blocks from his receivers and beats what’s left of the pursuing Cowboys defenders to the front pylon. It was Bush’s most impressive run of the season and it wasn’t especially close. Nearly every other big run by Bush on the year featured an edge defender getting pinned inside, giving Bush a clear outside rushing lane with 10–15 yards of real estate before he met another defender. In other words, they were plays most all NFL backs are going to make if put in the same situation.
In the second quarter, we get a glimpse of the bad. Bush takes the handoff on an inside zone run, and with linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) making a beeline for the backside A-gap, a clear hole opens up outside right guard Garrett Reynolds (70). If Bush decisively bursts through that opening, he’s one-on-one in the open field with safety J.J. Wilcox (27). Instead, Bush hesitates, a backside defender cuts off his lane, and he tries to cutback to no avail. This indecision pops up frequently with Bush. All too often you see him dancing around behind his offensive line waiting for something to open up.
Late in the game, we get the typical Bush carry. DeMarcus Lawrence (90) makes a hard move to the inside, allowing the Lions to easily seal him off on the zone running play and open up the outside for Bush. Facing the ideal scenario from the previous play — one-on-one in the open field with a safety — Bush is unable to shake the defender and is taken to the ground after a short gain. For a back whose elusiveness is supposed to be one of his biggest assets, it’s disconcerting how often Bush is unable to make people miss in space. Rarely is Bush able to gain more yards than those blocked for him.
Of course, Bush’s most likely path to becoming a meaningful part of San Francisco’s offense isn’t as a runner, but as a receiver. Bush still has enough juice in the tank, and is a skilled enough route runner, to be a mismatch for most linebackers and many safeties in coverage when he’s on his game, something that was on display in Week 3 against the Packers.
Bush aligned in the backfield for the wide majority of his targets in 2014, which is what we see above with Bush offset to Matthew Stafford’s right in the shotgun. Bush is at his most dangerous in the passing game running option routes out of the backfield — giving him the ability to break inside or out or sit down in an open area depending on what the coverage dictates — and A.J. Hawk (50) stands little chance in man coverage on this play. Stafford gets the ball out to a wide open Bush over the middle, after a nasty break inside freed him of Hawk’s coverage. The result is a 15-yard gain and a third down conversion.
A decent portion of Bush’s targets last year came as a safety valve with Stafford looking to dump the ball off to avoid pressure. Facing a second-and-long against the Giants in Week 1, the Lions have a vertical passing concept dialed up. With New York in man coverage, the secondary gets run off downfield by the vertical pass routes leaving no one underneath when Bush slips out over the middle. The safety responsible for Bush on the play is eight yards away at the time Bush makes the reception, and a poor angle allows Bush to easily escape outside. Bush is nearly 20 yards downfield with first-down yardage in hand before he comes in contact with a defender.
Those two plays provide glimpses of what Bush can add to San Francisco’s passing game, but they hardly represent the typical Bush reception. Bush has always been more of a high-volume receiver than an efficient one. His career 7.49 yards per reception is low even among running backs, ranking 54th out of 68 backs with at least a 100 receptions since Bush entered the league in 2006. And according to Football Outsiders, Bush is coming off his least-valuable season to date catching the ball, finishing below replacement level in receiving DYAR for the first time in his career.
Bush’s poor ranking in Football Outsiders’ metrics stems largely from a high number of failed completions. Nearly half of Bush’s receptions (18 of 40) fell short of the requisite yardage needed to keep Detroit’s offense on schedule for a new set of downs. And for those thinking Bush would bolster the 49ers’ non-existant screen game — one of the most popular gripes during the Harbaugh era — I wouldn’t hold your breath. Based on my charting, Bush was targeted on 13 screen passes in 2014. He caught 11 of those targets, producing a whopping 37 yards and nine failed completions.
Much like his contributions on the ground, Bush simply doesn’t produce consistent yardage through the air. A year ago, some of that was due to his usage. Many of those failed completions came on checkdowns or quick passes to the flat in which Bush was getting tackled immediately after making the catch. Others were on screen passes with shoddy blocking and little hope of positive yardage. But the lack of efficiency in the passing game is nothing new for Bush, it’s been the case for the majority of his career.
Because of his reputation as a receiver, many have dubbed Bush the ideal complement to Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter in the 49ers’ backfield. But when I watch Bush’s tape, I fail to see how he makes San Francisco’s offense better.2 Kendall Hunter is a better outside runner. And while we still need to see more of Bruce Ellington, it’s not a stretch to imagine Ellington as a superior option to Bush as an underneath receiver and Swiss-Army-knife-type player given where the two players are at in their respective careers.
We didn’t even touch on several other concerns that limit Bush’s upside — durability (he’s missed nearly 20 percent of possible regular season games and has played a full 16 games just twice) and ball security (his 33 career fumbles are the second-most since 2006, trailing only Frank Gore) chief among them. And while it might be logical to think splitting the workload with Hyde and Hunter will keep Bush fresh and off the injury report, remember that sharing a backfield with Pierre Thomas and Deuce McAllister didn’t help him in New Orleans.
It’s not unreasonable to envision a best-case scenario in which Bush touches the ball six to eight times per game, is a valuable third-down option, breaks a handful of big plays, and is the player Colin Kaepernick finally becomes willing to check the ball down to. However, considering running backs on the wrong side of 30 have a tendency to disappear in a hurry, and Bush has already shown signs of diminishing ability, it’s more likely Bush is this year’s Brandon Lloyd — mixing a couple of splashy plays with mostly subpar play, while falling well short of even modest expectations.
And please, enough with the "Bush catches short passes, so he’ll help us beat the Seahawks" narrative. Just because it worked for the Patriots in the Super Bowl doesn’t make it some magical blueprint to break Seattle’s defense. Their defense invites and smothers short passes. Bush isn’t Julian Edelman or Shane Vereen and the 49ers’ offense isn’t turning into the Patriots’ offense probably ever at this rate. ↩