NEW ORLEANS -- Mark Ingram's breakout performance came just in time.
The first three years of Ingram’s career with the New Orleans Saints had been so disappointing up until Sunday night that the frustration was about to reach a breaking point.
Certainly with the fans -- who actually filled the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a chorus of boos in the first quarter after Ingram dropped a check-down pass.
But Ingram was also ready to burst himself. His emotion was unmistakable during Sunday’s game. He punched the air or slammed the ball down out of frustration after the dropped pass and after his first two runs. He drew a delay of game penalty for slamming the ball after a 13-yard run that he thought he should have broken for a bigger gain.
“I always play with a lot of passion, a lot of emotion, with a chip on my shoulder. And that just came out a little bit more today,” Ingram said. “It was just Sunday Night football and I was feeling good all week as far as my health goes. And I just wanted to come out and have a great game and show the world what I can do, what type of player I am, what type of back I am, what type of emotion I play with. And I just wanted to come out here tonight and do the best I could to help us win a game.”
Ingram certainly – finally – did that. He finally broke loose during the second half of Sunday’s 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys, Ingram finished with a career-high 145 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries – the first 100-yard game of his career.
Afterward, the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft pick couldn’t hide his excitement.
“It feels great to have a good game. I’ve been waiting for a 100-yard game since I got into the league,” said Ingram, who proudly showed off the commemorative game ball that was awarded to him by NBC’s Sunday Night Football crew. “I’m just gonna cherish this forever. … I know Drew [Brees] and everybody else has probably had a lot of these. But I’m gonna love it.”
So far, Ingram’s career has been derailed by a series of injuries and inconsistent performances. He’s never been officially declared a first-round draft “bust.” But he’s never been able to string together enough good performances to prove otherwise.
This season was finally supposed to be Ingram’s chance to turn the corner. He finished strong last year. He was healthy throughout the entire offseason for the first time in his young career. And the Saints were clearly intent on making him more of a featured back in the offense.
But the entire run game stunk during the first two games, and Ingram stumbled behind a shaky offensive line – gaining a total of 31 yards on 17 carries. Then he went down with a toe injury that sidelined him for five weeks.
In the meantime, a report surfaced that Ingram might seek a trade – though Ingram strongly denied the report. Worse yet in the eyes of the fan base, former Saints running back Chris Ivory, who was traded away this past offseason, started to shine for the New York Jets.
Ingram stayed patient – but not too patient. He looked like he wanted to make up for all of his missed opportunities on every snap Sunday night. He said the boos didn’t fuel him. He didn’t need any more motivation.
“The boos don’t bother me,” Ingram said. “You know, what the fans think really doesn’t bother me, really doesn’t affect me. I know what I can do. I know what type of player I am. How hard I work every single day, week in and week out, preparing for the games. That stuff doesn’t affect me at all because at the end of the day all that matters is what’s in this locker room, what’s in this organization and what they know is going on. So it didn’t really affect me. I was just more motivated to help my team win games and be explosive.”
From all indications, Ingram has always remained highly valued and respected inside the Saints organization. Despite all of his struggles, he has continued to have an outstanding attitude and work ethic. From the beginning, he has never complained about his lack of touches.
"I'm so happy for him," Brees said Sunday night. "He was a man on a mission today. This is kind of just breaking the seal for what he's capable of."
Going forward, we obviously can’t read too much into Ingram’s performance against a toothless Dallas defense. He needs a few more encores, and he’ll be facing a lot more difficult run defenses (San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina twice). Also, I think Ingram will remain the Saints’ third option behind veterans Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in a backfield-by-committee setup.
However, Sunday’s performance was a reminder that it’s still not time to give up on Ingram’s potential just yet. And with the improved play of the Saints’ offensive line in recent weeks, all of the Saints’ running backs have a chance to produce more consistently down the stretch.
The Saints’ run game problems over the past two years have always been bigger than any one back. When the run game hasn’t been working, all of the running backs have struggled together. And vice versa when it is working.
The same thing happened last year, when Ingram quietly churned out 424 yards and four touchdowns over the final eight games.
“First of all, just being healthy is big, just being out there, being able to play,” Ingram said. “The first two games, I didn’t really play that well. And I felt like the line is so much better [since those first two weeks], and they did such a good job tonight. Man, when they block like that and I can get into a rhythm, get some touches, it could be special. So I just thank my line. All the credit is due to them. That makes my job easy when they do that.”