Bush healthy, but future uncertain

When Michael Bush first heard the buzz, he wasn’t thinking that this was just the typical business nature of the NFL. Or that it was just more potential competition. Instead, one very familiar word came to mind when Bush heard the Oakland Raiders were flirting with Arkansas running back Darren McFadden.

“I was just like ‘Why?’ ” Bush wondered.

Bush conveys the moment like a man who has been asking himself that question forever. And some days in Bush’s mind, it might seem that way. Since Sept. 2006, his career has seen little more than turbulence: A broken leg against Kentucky in the opener of his senior season; a second surgery a month before the NFL draft; plummeting into the fourth round of the 2007 draft; and then a long climb back with the Raiders that ended with an unexpected deactivation in November – without logging a single carry in his rookie season.

Now, in what can only be described as another layer of misery – after watching Justin Fargas blossom in Oakland’s backfield and even Dominic Rhodes rack up a pair of 100-yard rushing games to end last season – Bush will spend the one-year anniversary of his draft freefall looking over his shoulder, hoping the Raiders don’t pull the rug out from his feet again, and use the No. 4 overall pick on McFadden.

“The first time I heard that (might happen), I was like, ‘why would you do that?’ ” Bush said. “You’ve got Dominic Rhodes, who to me is still a good running back. Then you’ve got Fargas still here and LaMont (Jordan) still here. We’ve got a good group of backs.”

Photo Bush in his junior season.
(US Presswire)

That Bush leaves himself off that list is no accident. He’s felt like the forgotten decimal point in Oakland’s backfield equation for some time. That was hard to imagine only 19 months ago, when Bush entered his senior season at Louisville near the top of his running back class and a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Those were expectations that made plenty of sense after he rolled to 2,380 yards and 36 touchdowns in his first three seasons with the Cardinals.

It’s already a faint memory, but at 6-foot-2 and 247 pounds, Bush was a combination of T.J. Duckett with better instincts and LenDale White with a more sculpted body. He was the embodiment of a top draft choice: big, fast, athletic and carrying a great attitude.

Now he’s the picture of what can go wrong when a leg injury or surgery occurs so close to the draft. Not to mention what can go wrong when you finally get to the next level, only to watch a team shelve you in a nonsensical numbers game.

That is what happened to Bush last season, in what could be labeled as another stroke of Oakland’s roster mismanagement. After starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, Bush was practicing, healthy, and had a good working knowledge of the offense by November. But that diligence was rewarded with the Raiders sticking him back on PUP for the remainder of the season.

Why? Because Oakland would have had to cut one of its backs to make room for Bush, and it would have come with back-to-back games looming against the running back-needy Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos.

Never mind that Oakland was 2-8 at that point of the season. Or that Jordan and Rhodes were contributing almost nothing at the time. Even the fact that Bush was a young building block in need of playing time couldn’t sway the decision. Instead, the Raiders (ahem, Al Davis) chose to keep Jordan and Rhodes and stick Bush on the PUP list, in hopes of denying the Chiefs or Broncos a possible competitive edge. And while Oakland won both of those games, the victories accomplished almost nothing in the wider view of what became a 4-12 season.

“There’s a lot to be said that if you’re looking to the future (that) you should have brought him up, you should have played him,” Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said earlier this month at the league’s annual owners meetings. “It wasn’t an easy decision. But it was a decision we made to go with the guys that we had.

“That affected Michael, I know, because Michael had worked so hard at that point to be able to practice with us and to be able to potentially play. Unfortunately we kind of took that away from him.”

Bush said the decision shocked him initially, particularly after he had spent countless post-practice work and film sessions trying to convince the coaching staff that he was healthy and ready to go. Bush said he fully expected to be activated, and that it wasn’t until well afterward that he was able to try to spin it in another direction. Not unlike his draft experience, when he went in hoping teams would gamble on him despite his injury – “Like Willis McGahee,” Bush said – but left trying to convince himself that he had landed in the right place.

Now he looks at his aborted first season, and hopes it means another year tacked on at the end of his career. “I look at it as I saved my body and I learned what to expect when you’re practicing hard,” Bush said. “I just try to get the most positive thing out of it.”

It’s a diplomatic viewpoint, to be sure. And Bush is doing his best to extend that line of thinking to the upcoming draft. While he’s hoping Oakland spends its No. 4 pick on something else – say, a defensive tackle – he’s determined to bite his tongue no matter the outcome.

“You like to say there’s nothing wrong with competing, but then you throw the dollar signs (from McFadden being a top pick) out there,” Bush said. “If I would have to wait or share reps or whatever, I’ve dealt with that in college.

“It’s a business. I talked to Justin Fargas and he said the same thing happened to him when he got into the league. They had Tyrone Wheatley and guys like that, and he had to take a back seat until this year. We’ve got a good group of guys in the backfield, so we don’t really understand why they would draft another running back. But Mr. Davis, he likes to win. And if he feels like McFadden can bring something to the table and we can win some games, then you can’t be mad at the guy.”

And Bush?

“I’ve become the unknown guy,” he said. “That’s ok. It just makes me work harder. A lot of guys are overlooking me and things I can bring to the table.”

After a long wait, he’ll be pulling up his chair soon enough.

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 16, 2008