April 23, 2017

The Long View: Bush and Hawk Get Cut

The Green Bay Packers cut linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday, the same day the Detroit Lions said goodbye to running back Reggie Bush. If this is the end for them it’s fitting that they go out together because they came into the league together, burdened with huge expectations.

Did they meet them?

Bush, a Heisman trophy winner at Southern Cal, was taken by the New Orleans Saints with the second overall pick in the 2006 draft. Hawk went to the Packers three picks later, fifth overall.

When a player is picked in the first round they’re expected to be a Pro Bowler. When they’re taken in the top five the hope, and the hype, is that they’ll end up in the Hall of Fame. Bush and Hawk have zero Pro Bowls between them and neither will make the Hall of Fame.

But are they busts?

Bush, who has been a hybrid in the NFL playing running back, receiver and returning kicks, accumulated 1,326 all-purpose yards and nine total touchdowns his rookie year and helped the Saints reach the NFC title game for the first time in franchise history (they lost to the Bears.)

Bush, despite battling injuries, contributed more than 1,000 yards in total offense in each of the next two seasons for the Saints (including three punt return TDs in 2008) and was a vital contributor in 2009 when the Saints advanced to their first and only Super Bowl, pulling off a huge upset of the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2011 Bush went to the Miami Dolphins and did something many thought he could not, rush for a thousand yards, 1,086 to be exact while also catching 43 passes for 296 yards and seven total touchdowns, numbers that he almost duplicated the next season in Miami.

Bush’s first year with Detroit in 2013 was the best of his career, statistically, with 1,512 yards from scrimmage and seven scores. This past season Bush appeared in just 11 games for Detroit with 550 total yards.

On draft day nine years ago if you had a crystal ball and saw that Reggie Bush would never win a rushing title, never make a Pro Bowl and play for three different teams you might have said he was going to be a disappointment.

But what if you looked into that very same mystical forecaster and saw that Bush would last nine seasons in a league when most players (especially small running backs) don’t last half that? And what if you were also told Bush would help a moribund franchise play in two conference title games and win one Super Bowl?

A.J. Hawk joined the Packers in 2006 and started all 16 games with 82 tackles, a number that he would never reach again.

But there are other numbers. Aaron James Hawk appeared in every game his rookie year and would do that again every year of his career except 2011 when he missed a grand total of two games.

Hawk was a starting linebacker in 136 of the 142 regular season games the Packers have played since 2006. He never had fewer than 53 tackles in a season, compiled nine career regular season interceptions and 19 sacks.

With Hawk, the Packers had the league’s second best defense in 2009 and fifth best in 2010, the year Hawk helped Green Bay win a Super Bowl, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let’s jump in the wayback machine and break out that crystal ball again. No Pro Bowls for Hawk, never led the league in tackles, didn’t create a lot of turnovers…but nine years as a starter means something. It means a lot of things.

If you’re still not impressed with Hawk or Bush we understand.   If you’ve read this far you’re obviously the demanding type and we respect that.

So let’s see how Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk measure up with other first rounders from 2006.

The first overall pick that year was defensive end Mario Williams who went to the Houston Texans. Williams played in two Pro Bowls for the Texans and two more since joining Buffalo in 2012 including the last two seasons and appears to still be going strong.

The third overall pick was quarterback Vince Young who went to the Titans. He was the offensive rookie of the year and appeared in two Pro Bowls. But his career came to an end with the Eagles in 2011.

Offensive Tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson went fourth overall to the Jets. He has made three Pro Bowls and is still going. Other future Pro Bowlers in the 2006 first round were Vernon Davis, Jay Cutler, Haloti Ngata, Chad Greenway, Antonio Cromartie, Tamba Hali, Davin Joseph, Jonathan Joseph, DeAngelo Williams, Marcedes Williams, Nick Mangold and Joseph Addai.

They all made at least one Pro Bowl but we confess there are a few in that group we’ve never heard of. And more importantly, perhaps, which one of those would you have rather had than Hawk or Bush? Ngata and Mangold almost certainly. The others spark a good debate.

The last player taken in the first round of 2006 was defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka who went to the Giants. Like Bush and Hawk, Kiwanuka was released this week. And like Bush and Hawk, Kiwanuka has a Super Bowl ring. Two of them.

Bush and Hawk might have a kindred spirit in Keith Van Horne, the All-American offensive lineman from Southern Cal who was taken by the Chicago Bears with the 11th overall pick in 1981. Chicagoans expected Van Horne to be a stud, a killer, an All-Pro, a legend.

He wasn’t. He was, however, a very solid football player, starting 169 games from 1981 until 1993. The Bears had great teams with Van Horne, making the playoffs seven times and winning one Super Bowl. There may have been other right tackles the Bears could have plugged in and had the same success. But the point is they didn’t need to look for another tackle because they had a good one.

Van Horne, Bush and Hawk are on the football’s Mount Rushmore of “take the long view.” All first round picks are expected to be great. Everyone wants a Lawrence Taylor, Peyton Manning, Patrick Peterson or J.J. Watt. But just because a first rounder doesn’t become a star doesn’t mean he was a bad pick. We all want winners, we all want stars and we all want it now. But patience can pay off. Availability, durability and determination cannot be measured at the combine.

Or maybe they can be and that’s really why Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk were taken so high, and lasted so long.

The future…what can you do with it?