Ultimate proving ground for Bush

Will the Super Bowl provide the setting for Reggie Bush's formal rise to superstar status? Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

MIAMI -- Four full seasons into his NFL career and we still don't know what to make of Reginald Alfred Bush.

Football fraud or work in progress? Underachiever or victim of expectations? The NFL's most expensive decoy or a Super Bowl MVP about to happen?

This is the week and the game that Bush can fill in all those question bubbles with his No. 2 pencil. This is when he can separate fact from perception or, more importantly, separate himself from every critic who thinks he was overhyped, overdrafted and overwhelmed.

Remember when the New Orleans Saints -- once they picked their jaws and fleurs-de-lis off the ground -- took USC's Bush with the No. 2 selection of the 2006 NFL draft? He was somehow available because the Houston Texans took defensive end Mario Williams with the No. 1 pick, even though 21 of 26 general managers responding to a Dallas Morning News poll rated Bush as the top prospect.

Now Bush will play in a Super Bowl against the Indianapolis Colts, while Williams and the Texans still wait to play in their first playoff game. Doesn't mean the Texans botched things by choosing Williams (at least, not yet). Just means that Bush, in a game that defines careers and reputations, can prove he's much more than a Kim Kardashian accessory.

"I wouldn't say it was difficult for me from a pressure standpoint, because I don't feel like there was pressure for me to come in and win a Super Bowl or do whatever it was right away," Bush says.

Wrong. Of course there was pressure on him from inside and outside the Saints. They didn't draft him to deep fry beignets. They drafted him to make an immediate impact.

"Nobody's going to set higher expectations or higher goals for me than I do," he says. "I'm going to be my biggest critic all the time. The same things that people say on TV the past couple of years are the same things I say to myself."

The things people said on TV:

• Bush is more interested in breaking ankles than breaking tackles.

• Bush's two favorite compass directions are east and west.

• Bush can stay healthy for party season, but not football season.

In fact, if that same 2006 draft were held today, you wonder how many players would be selected before Bush (and Williams). Jay Cutler (No. 11 in 2006)? Haloti Ngata (No. 12)? DeAngelo Williams (No. 27)? DeMeco Ryans (second round, No. 33)? Maurice Jones-Drew (second round, No. 60)?

"It's been a learning process for me," Bush says. "Learning how to run the ball in this league. Learning how to play north and south. Whatever it is to improve my game, I've been working on that. It's taken me longer than I would have liked to, but here we are."

Bush is a reason, but not the reason why the Saints are here at Super Bowl XLIV. That distinction would belong to quarterback Drew Brees or New Orleans coach Sean Payton.

It was Brees who was the first Saints player to call Bush that night of the '06 draft. It was Brees who immediately understood Bush's potential -- and told him so. And it was Brees who eased Bush's fears about coming to a city still battered by Hurricane Katrina and a franchise whose fans often wore paper bags over their heads.

"When I first learned I was going to be drafted by the Saints, I'm not going to lie, I was pretty scared," Bush says. "I was pretty nervous. I didn't know what to expect."

Year 1 was a success. The Saints reached the NFC Championship Game. Bush rushed for 565 yards and six touchdowns, caught 88 passes for 742 yards and two touchdowns, and added another TD on a punt return. Opposing defensive coordinators wept.

But then the numbers began to slip, and so did Bush. He suffered injuries. He forgot that there's nothing wrong with a 4- or 5-yard run. You never quite knew what you were going to get with Bush.

"The first year and some of the second year was tough for him," says former Saints running back Deuce McAllister, who remains a Bush mentor and quasi-assistant coach for the team. "It's different from L.A. One of the big issues was the enormous pressure making the huge plays that he made at SC. Some of the expectations that were placed on him, I don't think anybody could do that."

Bush struggled at times. On the field. In the locker room.

"He's from Hollywood, the No. 2 pick; he's going to be a prima donna," says McAllister, listing some of the in-house perceptions of Bush in those early seasons. "He had to prove it to those guys."

Said Saints offensive guard Jamar Nesbit, who started every game during Bush's first two seasons: "He was kind of shut off. It wasn't so much his own doing. But all the hype and everything that surrounded him coming here made it kind of hard for him to assimilate with everybody. But I think he's worked hard at being one of the guys. I think that's made it easier and more beneficial for everybody here."

So Bush -- even with Kardashian, the GQ photo shoots and a contract clause that could earn him as much as $1.3 million in bonuses this postseason -- is one of the guys. What he'd like to become is one of the legends.

Bush still gets dinged and misses games. But when healthy or close to it, he creates terrifying mismatches.

This postseason he was electric against the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional playoff win (five carries, 84 yards, a rushing TD; an 83-yard TD punt return), less so in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. The difference, though, between much of this season and previous Bush seasons is the little things, not the big things.

You don't think his Saints teammates notice that Bush is lowering his shoulder these days rather than sprinting out of bounds? They love it.

You don't think they appreciate Bush grinding out a 4-yard gain instead of a 20-yard, style-points, zigzag run that goes nowhere?

"A couple of years ago I would second-guess myself," Bush says. "Or instead of just taking the few yards here and there and allowing the big play to come to me, I was going after the big play too much."

The distance between Bush and 2006, and Mario Williams, and all those impossible expectations grows a little wider when he says something like that. Maturity.

But Bush will forever separate himself from the doubters if Kardashian catches him cheating on her after Sunday's game. You'll know it when you see it. He'll be kissing that special something.

It's called the Lombardi Trophy.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.