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Thursday, November 5, 2015

A round of applause for Mark Ingram

Posted By on Thu, Nov 5, 2015 at 5:19 PM

I don't dislike Mark Ingram. I think he's OK. Aside from the handful of preternatural running backs out there, and from the really bad ones who can't do anything right, most NFL backs are interchangeable; their success depends on the offensive line in front of them. Mark Ingram was, I figured, just one of those guys.

Halfway through 2015, I've realized he might be something more.

The Amazing Average-Man

It may never have been Ingram's fault, really. He spent much of his time between 2011 and early 2013 fighting off nagging injuries, the sort that are just bad enough to affect performance but not bad enough to permanently keep a guy off the field. He looked as average as an average, interchangeable running back could be, and in the context of 2011 in particular, looking average meant looking bad.

Darren Sproles averaged 6.9 yards per rush in 2011. Pierre Thomas managed 5.1. Chris Ivory rolled off 4.7, despite playing the same role in the offense as Ingram, who could only produce 3.9. Ingram averaged 3.9 yards per carry the next year, too, even as Sproles and Ivory clocked in above five, and Thomas managed four-and-a-half. 

The story looked the same early in 2013. Here's a classic Amazing Average-Man run:

The hole's big, blockers are there, but Ingram goes down to an ankle tackle without much resistance. There's nothing wrong with a run like this. It's what interchangeable running backs do when they have a little space. But it's not impressive. It's not fun, and since watching football is mostly supposed to be fun, Ingram entered the fans' doghouse.

But later in 2013, Mark Ingram became #AngryIngram, and everything started to change. Runs like this one? They became obsolete. Now, the rule was:

The difference is self-evident.

This new, more fun version of Ingram is the one we've generally had since. The reason for Ingram's newfound ability to take more than his offensive line gave him? Who knows. Most likely, the explanation is health, which bred explosiveness, which bred confidence, which created #AngryIngram.

An All-Around Weapon

In 2013 and 2014, though, Ingram still seemed one-dimensional. He caught only seven passes in '13, and though he caught 29 in 2014 he averaged only five yards per catch, a pedantic number reserved for running backs who should only be thrown to when all else has absolutely failed.

This year, Ingram has emerged as an all-around back, a weapon not just as a runner but as a receiver, making him a better fit than ever for Sean Payton's offense. It's not just that Ingram, with 33 receptions, is the team's fourth-leading receiver. Any back could catch passes on a team with Drew Brees and a depth chart of wide receivers as unimpressive as the one put on the field by the Saints this year.

It's what Ingram has done with those 33 receptions that is all the difference. He's caught 274 yards, averaging 8.3 per catch, a number that is outstanding for a running back. Through eight games in 2015, Ingram has caught about as many yards worth of passes as he had caught in his previous 50 games.

The result is a running back quietly producing a season no Saints back has managed in over a decade. Since not just Deuce McAllister but since the younger, faster, pre-knee injuries version of Deuce McAllister that predates even Sean Payton's arrival in New Orleans.

Consider: If Ingram simply replicates, over the season's second half, the numbers he produced during its first, he'll finish the year with 1060 yards rushing and 548 yards receiving. That total of 1608 yards from scrimmage would be the most by a Saint since McAllister had over 2000 way back in 2003, and similar to the 1740 he had in 2002. 

A lot of this is a matter of usage. Ingram isn't just a passing option of last resort anymore. But it's also skill. The ability to hurt opposing defenses as a receiver is an ability that makes a lot of pretty normal backs special. Ingram has that skill, and this year has had the opportunity to show it off.

After years of criticisms, with the occasional excuse thrown in as his defense — surely you've heard the one about how we just had to run him more to make him better, a classic shouty sports TV cliche about "big, bruising running backs" — Ingram has evolved. No, he doesn't need to be slammed uselessly into the line until he suddenly looks good. He's good from the start.

He's an all-around weapon, and he's a great fit for the Saints' offense as it seeks to normalize its explosive performance against the New York Giants and propel the team into contention.

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