Rafael Bush said he braced himself for the wrath of a million Saints fans the moment he signed an offer sheet to join the Atlanta Falcons, loathed in and around New Orleans for nearly half a century.
However, he hopes even the most ardent Who Dats eventually grasp his reasons for doing so.
The Falcons came to Bush with an opportunity to be a starting safety. They pitched him a contract that could be worth up to $3.1 million more than what the Saints had initially put on the table. And they were giving him the chance to play in a city where he has a number of close relatives, one that is no more than three hours from his hometown of Williston, S.C.
“I understand it’s a rivalry and it’s the Saints,” Bush said Monday. “But ... people have to understand this is a business. It’s never personal. Players are looking out for the well-being of their families.”
Bush’s remarks followed the conclusion of a drama that gripped Saints fans for the previous four days and ended with the revelation that the ascending player would stay in New Orleans and not defect to the enemy.
The beginnings of the saga trace to March, when the Saints handed Bush (a restricted free agent) a one-year, $1.4 million minimum tender that would secure the team the right to match any contract offers he considered from other organizations.
Bush, though, didn’t immediately sign the tender, betting some teams might want to whip up a more lucrative offer than the Saints’ deal. He was right: Multiple teams contacted his agent, William Brian Anderson, about possibly landing his services.
“I was like, ‘Maybe teams may bite, maybe they’re looking for a decent player to play in their defense,’” said Bush, who declined to identify any organizations beyond Atlanta.
But only one club sent an offer sheet. The Falcons were searching for someone to replace Thomas DeCoud, their starting safety from 2009 until his release in March.
Slated to be No. 3 on the Saints’ pecking order at safety below Jairus Byrd (a recent free-agent acquisition whose 22 career interceptions are the most among players at his position since entering the NFL in 2009) and Kenny Vaccaro (a 2013 first-round pick whose rookie campaign was phenomenal), Bush slapped his signature Thursday on the offer sheet worth up to $4.5 million over two years.
That gave the Saints until Tuesday to either match or let him leave with no compensation.
The more prominent billing in Atlanta wasn’t Bush’s sole motivation, though he felt ready for it. In his second year with the Saints and third on an active roster in the NFL, Bush in 2013 was credited by the Saints with 45 tackles (29 solo), six pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery over 13 games and six starts.
He tacked on four special-teams stops as the Saints, whose defense was ranked No. 4 overall and second against the pass, won 12 of their 18 games and made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
Bush handled an increased workload well early in the season when safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper (neither of whom are on the team anymore) were injured. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave Bush the 24th-highest grade among NFL safeties in 2013 and rated him as the Saints’ best player at the position.
What motivated him as well was the prospect of earning more money to care for an Atlanta-native wife he recently married and his 1-year-old daughter.
“We all want to be able to provide for our families,” said Bush, whose NFL career began as an undrafted free agent and practice-squad member of the Falcons in 2010. “We all want an opportunity to start.”
Some Saints fans empathized and expressed their support via Twitter. But other die-hards could not have cared less and called him an ungrateful traitor.
Bush went back and forth with his online detractors for about an hour Saturday, telling them he didn’t understand the hostility when he hadn’t yet gone anywhere.
Two days later, it became clear he’d remain with the Saints because the team exercised its right of first refusal and matched Atlanta’s offer.
Bush on Monday was already over the spat.
“They’re 100 percent behind their team, (and) I realize how much hate they have for the Falcons,” Bush said about those with whom he argued. “I can honestly say this fan base is the best by far, and I understood we were going to have a couple of people upset.”
He also wasn’t stressed that Byrd and Vaccaro are expected to see most of the action at safety in New Orleans. In 2013, the first year the Saints defense was under the command of coordinator Rob Ryan, New Orleans routinely deployed three-safety sets, and it still excited him to line up in those formations alongside players as distinguished as Byrd and Vaccaro.
“I understand those guys are the starters and rightfully so,” said Bush, who added he was thrilled about the thought of learning from Champ Bailey, a legendary veteran defensive back the Saints reached terms with on a free-agent deal Friday. “We are going to push each other, compete every day, and we are all going to make ourselves better.”
Above all else, Bush on Monday was thankful the offer sheet imbroglio was over so he could concentrate on working out, studying film and preparing himself to man the role Ryan, coach Sean Payton and defensive backs boss Wesley McGriff need him to.
“It’s done and it’s over with,” Bush said. “Now the focus is winning football games.”