ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The Detroit Lions were 5-0 in October of 2011 when running back Jahvid Best suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the NFL.
Best wasn't the greatest back in football, or even the most valued member of the Lions offense. He was a dual-purpose player though, a guy who could deliver enough chunks of yardage both rushing and catching the football in the flats to keep a secondary honest on Calvin Johnson and make coordinators think twice about blitzing Matthew Stafford.
Here at Lions headquarters, his value was unquestioned. They'd traded up to get him out of Cal in the 2010 draft – "Some people watch adult videos on their computer," Schwartz said back then. "I go to YouTube and watch Jahvid Best highlight clips. That's what gets me going."
And then suddenly Best was gone, a hit to the head against San Francisco in Week 6 knocked him out of the sport, likely for good.
Detroit is 9-19 since (counting a 2011 playoff loss). That includes a dreadful 4-12 campaign last season that put just about everyone's job in jeopardy. The reasons are myriad (notably a terrible secondary), but there was a clear feeling among the Lions brain trust that the offense was never the same without the dynamic that Best provided.
So when Reggie Bush – also elusive in the open field and capable of both running and catching – hit the free-agent market last spring, Detroit treated him like he was still the electrifying Heisman winner out of USC, not a guy headed into his eighth season and seeking his third team.
They didn't just line up to get the first crack at Bush by having him fly in from New York, where he was at the time. They sent a private plane to pick him up. And they didn't just send a private plane. They sent a private plane with coach Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterback Matthew Stafford on board to meet him.
Bush, who was waiting at the Teterboro airport in New Jersey, was surprised at the welcoming committee. Soon after, everyone was on the airplane discussing how Reggie could rejuvenate the Lions. Strategies were laid out. Roles defined. An iPad was pulled out and film was dissected. It was the full-court press.
"We talked the whole plane ride," Bush said Wednesday as the Lions prepare for the season-opener against Minnesota. "They just kind of showed me how wide open some of these running lanes are because of the way they have to play Calvin and because of the way defenses are so worried about the passing offense.
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"It's wide open for running backs. It's really a running back's dream."
Schwartz's passion for players who can do what Bush and Best do has been clearly articulated. It may have been Stafford who was the most convincing though, if merely by being there at all.
"He didn't have to be on that plane," Bush said. "He didn't have to take the time out of his day to show up and recruit me. It says a lot about him and the type of person he is. He's about getting better as a team, 'How can we improve the team?'"
There were more meetings and film sessions back at the Lions facility but the truth is the deal was done. A half a dozen teams still wanted a shot at Reggie, but the decision was essentially made at 30,000 feet as Bush saw what was possible on that iPad. It also didn't hurt, obviously, that the Lions were also willing to pay, giving him $16 million over four years.
"Just constantly being in space all the time," he said. "That's really what our offense is about. We are just constantly in space, constantly getting our playmakers in space and beating you one on one.
"That was the first (visit) and that was just it."
The Lions hope this is a renewal of their once high-powered offense (it went from 4th to 17th in scoring). For Bush, it's simply a glorious chance in a career that even with a Super Bowl ring in New Orleans is still seeking a defining season. He was a weapon during his five years with the Saints, but never the primary ball carrier. He averaged over 1,000 yards rushing during his two seasons in Miami, but never made the playoffs.
Maybe this is where it all comes together. Bush isn't a man prone to regret, but there is still something to prove.
"I just feel like this is maybe my best opportunity yet," he said.
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The preseason has been full of vanilla offenses and just two series of action from Calvin Johnson, yet Bush still piqued interest with his play. He is running well. He looks elusive. He is only 28 and his focus is unquestioned – he's even a new father to a baby girl, "It's grounded me, a lot, because everything I do revolves around her. The second I step through the door, my time goes to her. It really brings perspective to life."
And the Lions couldn't be more excited about their free-agent acquisition.
"He can take a short pass and make a big play out of it," Schwartz said. "I like what he can provide in the run game but also in the pass game. He's a weapon … he has the ability to take it to the house every time he touches the ball."
And he presumably will impact every other facet of the Lions offense, particularly in creating a pick-your-poison combo with Johnson.
"There's a dynamic between those guys," Schwartz said.
The other day Bush and Johnson talked after practice about how opponents will have to choose whom to try to shut down … and they better not forget tight end Brandon Pettigrew who Bush calls "the X-factor."
"When you look at the fire power we have on our offense, and especially when you talk about a guy like Calvin, he's someone defenses constantly have to worry about." Bush said. "Then you throw me in the mix, they can't double team both of us. And they don't want to put me one-on-one with a linebacker. So it's constantly forcing them to think about how they are going to play us."
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These are the Lions, a franchise with perpetual summer optimism that rarely pans out. Still, Bush isn't naïve. Neither is Johnson. And Matthew Stafford didn't get on that plane without good reason.
Reggie Bush needed a place that needed him and the Lions, in no uncertain terms, believe he is just what they need. An excited, midflight film session, four guys huddled over a tablet, proved to everyone that this needed to happen. Nothing since has dimmed the positivity.
"Pretty much everything they talked about when they were recruiting me here, the opportunities they talked about, it's all here," Bush said. "It's definitely been everything I was hoping for."