Darren Sproles a perfect fit for Saints
Running back has done everything well -- and better than the player he replaced
Remember that guy, the one with the big diamonds and the hot girlfriend and the Heisman Trophy that was taken away?
Of the avalanche of records the Saints set this season, one big one has been overlooked because Drew Brees has been unconscious all season. In his first season in New Orleans, the 5-foot-6 Sproles set an NFL record for net yards with 2,696, six more than Derrick Mason's previous record with Tennessee in 2000. It was nice that Sproles was on the receiving end of the pass that broke Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season, and that it was for a touchdown, but Sproles' more impressive contribution to the Saints is that he has done everything well -- and better than the guy he replaced.
Without Sproles, there might not be 5,476, Brees' ridiculous NFL record for passing yards in a season, or his NFL-record 71.2 completion percentage or his NFL-record 468 completions or his NFL-record 278 first-down passes or his NFL-record 13 300-yard games or his NFL-record seven consecutive 300-yard games. You get the point. There might not be 467.1, the Saints' NFL record for yards per game, 16.3 yards more than the closest team. And there certainly might not be 13-3, a record that earned New Orleans the No. 3 seeding in the NFC and a home date Saturday night with sixth-seeded Detroit.
Sproles has 87 carries for a team-high 603 yards and two rushing touchdowns and a fantastic average of 6.9 yards per carry. He is second on the team to tight end Jimmy Graham with 86 catches, the most by any running back in the league, for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. Sproles did not fumble once in those 173 offensive touches and accounted for 62 first downs. His 25 catches on third down tied for third most in the league, and he has 225 yards and two touchdown receptions on third down.
In helping bolster the Saints' previously lackluster special teams, Sproles returned punts all season and busted one 72 yards for a touchdown in the opener at Green Bay. His 27.2 yards per kickoff return ranked sixth in the NFL.
While he has a skill set similar to Bush's, Sproles is the better between-the-tackles runner, and he proved to be more physical than Saints coach Sean Payton and his staff had thought when they signed him in late July.
The idea was that Sproles would be a check-down back, and that certainly proved to be the case, but he led the team in rushing. With rookie Mark Ingram and veteran Pierre Thomas on the roster, that was not part of the initial plan.
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"It's hard to tell in free agency or the draft how quick a player will pick things up or how he can get acclimated," Payton said Thursday. "In Darren's case, he's extremely smart in terms of football awareness. He picked our offense up very rapidly and so his football IQ is real high.
"Secondly, from a running back standpoint, I think his ability to carry not only outside plays but inside handoffs, he's been real durable, and those are some of the things that maybe don't strike you at first in free agency. There are certain skill sets you saw, but I would say his versatility and football intelligence are two things that have been very impressive."
Thanks in part to Sproles, the Saints finished the regular season ranked sixth in rushing offense, even while also having the No. 1 passing offense.
Opposing defenses must concentrate on Graham, who led the team with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns, and Marques Colston (80 catches for 1,143 yards). If everyone is covered and Sproles leaks out in the flat, he is a matchup nightmare. What would have been a yardage loss or, best case, no gain is suddenly five yards.
Unlike his predecessor, Sproles can pass block. Brees is the least sacked quarterback in the league because he has arguably the best offensive line in football and he gets rid of the ball so quickly, but Sproles deserves a little credit too.
And Brees loves him. They played one season together in San Diego in what seems like a lifetime ago and worked out together periodically in suburban San Diego, where Brees has a home, during the lockout. Brees was constantly in Sproles' ear to join the Saints once free agency finally started.
After New Orleans traded Bush to Miami on July 28, Brees went back to work.
"We need you baby, come join us, you'll fit in great, win a championship, let's break some records, let's do something special, let's go,'" Brees recalled in July to the New Orleans Times-Picayune of his recruitment of Sproles. "I pulled out all the stops."
Within hours, Sproles chose the Saints over Philadelphia and San Diego.
Bush had been scheduled to make $16 million from the Saints this season. Sproles signed a four-year deal worth an average of $3.5 million per season.
Not only has he been better than Bush, he is more economical.
Sproles fittingly helped Brees break Marino's record, but there is work to be done. Records are important, but championships are what ultimately matter. Brees has one. Unlike Bush, Sproles doesn't.
He and Brees would like to change that over the course of the next 4½ weeks.
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.
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