Aug 15, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) carries the ball past Tennessee Titans free safety George Wilson (21) on his way to scoring a touchdown in the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

For Saints' RB Mark Ingram, It's Now or Never

One of the greatest seasons that I ever saw by a running back in college was  one in which that year’s Heisman Trophy winner led his team to an undisputed National Championship; while carrying the ball 271 times for 1,658 yards with 17 touchdowns. Equally impressive was his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, where he grabbed 32 receptions for another 334 yards and 3 TD’s , an impressive 10 plus yards per catch average — meaning he would always get a first down for the offense receiving the ball as well as he could running it.


Now, I know what you’re thinking. I must be talking about the great RB Billy Sims, the great Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma who ran wild over the entire nation in the late 1970’s and whom I idolized as a kid. Ummmm….nope. How about Marcus Allen when he played at USC? Nope. Dalton Hilliard when he played at LSU? No…..  Maybe Barry Sanders when he was at Oklahoma State? Close…. Was it Reggie Bush? C’mon man —REALLY???


As it turns out, that running back’s name is Mark Ingram. Yes, the Saints’ Mark Ingram. The same Mark Ingram who ran ROUGHSHOD over the SEC and the rest of the country on his way to leading the University of Alabama to the National Championship in 2009 — the very same year that the Saints won their only Super Bowl. To say Ingram has been a disappointment in his time in New Orleans would be a huge understatement. As most folks know from my previous article on Ingram earlier in the Pre-Season, I’ve been one of his biggest critics and I’m hoping that his stellar performance in these exhibition games will carry over into the regular season. If the Saints’ goal of winning a 2nd Super Bowl is to be realized, then Ingram almost has to do that. Surely without hesitation, for Mark Ingram it’s now or never.

Now let’s just call what it is — the 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns Ingram has gained in his first three NFL seasons COMBINED doesn’t even come anywhere close to that season back in 2009 that I mentioned above. However in fairness to the young man, he hasn’t exactly been given the opportunity to be a “bell-cow” RB in the Saints’ offensive attack either. That’s just not the Saints’ style; although when they utilized that type of commitment to the running game back in 2009, they were rewarded with a championship of their own that year with a Super Bowl victory over Indianapolis.


However, Saints head coach Sean Payton has said that the Saints this season will be making a return to the commitment of a “power” running style, and though while Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas will receive some of the rushing load — it’s looking more and more like the Saints will be giving Ingram the majority of the attempts starting with this Sunday at Atlanta. Here are Ingram’s yards per carry from late last season: 6.4 yards per carry at Carolina in Week 16; 6.7 yards per carry vs. Tampa Bay in Week 17; 5.4 yards per carry at Philadelphia in the NFC wild-card round; 4.9 yards per carry at Seattle in the NFC divisional round. Add the 7.1 yards per carry in four games of the Pre-Season that just concluded, and it’s obvious to see that the “old” Mark Ingram is back.


Here’s where Mark Ingram needs to improve his game enough to where the Saints may finally began trusting him to become a vital cog in their offense: CATCHING the football. As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, in that dynamic / memorable performance he had for Alabama in ’09, he was a much of a threat catching the football out of the backfield as was running it. Not a Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles type of a threat. Surely not a LeSean McCoy type of threat. But a threat, nevertheless. So how has he fared catching the ball out of the backfield as a Saint? How about  24 total catches (in three years) for 143 yards, with zero TD’s. Is there any wonder why he hasn’t been a bigger part of the offense now?


The Saints use the screen pass in their offensive attack to often compensate for the times they’ve had problems running effectively against certain opponents; as well as the fact that it just happens to be a play that they run efficiently perhaps more than any other team in the League. Pierre Thomas of course is the master of the use of that play, and 2nd year man Khiry Robinson has shown he excels at doing it as well.


That alone has kept Ingram off the field a majority of the time, while the Saints have gone with a multiple back rotation and also tend to pass far more often than they run. Ingram’s 23 yard reception for a TD against the Titans three weeks ago in the Pre-Season was actually the very first of his NFL career up to this point. It’s something that I can’t stress enough in which he needs to become much better at.


Certainly I can’t question though that Ingram appears to have gotten his “mojo” back, and it actually began late last year. He registered the first-ever 100-yard game of his NFL career in Week 10 against Dallas. He gained 83 tough but effective yards on the road against Carolina’s top-ranked defense. And his 97 yards were critical component in contributing to the Saints’ first ever road playoff win at Philadelphia. I remember thinking even then: “Where was THIS guy all along?”


“The thing with Mark, he has been in a program that is very similar to the attention that we get and the fanfare, the criticism and the compliments when you are doing well, He understands that and if you are not careful how it can affect your play. To his credit, a year ago, he did a good job tuning out some of the noise and then when the opportunities came when he got healthy you saw him play a lot better.” – Saints head coach Sean Payton, speaking about RB Mark Ingram


As it is, out of the four running backs on the roster, Ingram was the only one drafted. The other three (Thomas, Robinson, and Travaris Cadet) all arrived as college free agents. It’s not even doing it any justice to say that Ingram was simply just drafted. It’s not like he was nothing but only a 5th Round pick. Ingram was a Heisman Trophy winner, a star on Alabama’s 2009 national championship team, All-SEC (the best and the toughest college football conference in the entire nation) and the consensus No. 1-rated running back in the 2011 draft. Much, much more was expected of him  — by myself and a handful of other Saints fans that I know.


He even was a guy that the Saints liked so much, that they sent a future first-round pick to New England (in 2012) in order to get back into the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft so that they could snag him with the No. 28 overall pick before someone else did. He arrived just months after the Saints were upset in the NFC playoffs by Seattle, in a game against a 7-9 team (don’t remind me) that they lost in part because their backfield was so decimated by injuries, that they were actually forced to use Heath Evans at tailback.


So it’s easy to understand the contempt among some Saints fans who are still not convinced that Ingram is going to be able to get the job done, starting this Sunday. The Saints have elected to not pick up the option on the fifth year of his contract, meaning Ingram will become an unrestricted free agent after this season. That’s something that honestly I believe could actually work to both Ingram and the Saints’ advantage. There’s nothing wrong with a little incentive or motivation (no matter what the source) to get a guy going. It could work out well for both parties. Ingram wouldn’t be the first player to produce his best season with a contract on the line, and in fact he won’t be the only player in the League that’ll be doing it during the 2014 season.

The bottom line simply is this, fair or unfair: now about to enter into his 4th year as a professional football player, Mark Ingram as a New Orleans Saint has carried the ball 356 times for 1,462 yards and 11 TD’s. Most NFL RB’s of his caliber get that in a SINGLE SEASON. The Saints need Mark Ingram to be a much more productive player in 2014 than he has been during his entire tenure with the Saints. If they’re going to win a Super Bowl this year, then they need that same guy that I remember very vividly and with much admiration from 2009.  For Mark V. Ingram, Jr., it’s now or never………………………


Aug 23, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 23, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports


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Tags: 2014 Saints Heisman Trophy Mark Ingram University Of Alabama

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