For any professional football player, the love from the fans goes hand in hand with the on-field performance level. As much as National Football League enthusiasts will express their deepest gratitude to a thriving superstar who plays for their favorite team, they will not hesitate to crucify the very same player when he fails to meet their expectations.
The highly-touted Heisman trophy winner out of Alabama was drafted by the New Orleans Saints with the 28th pick in the 2011 NFL draft. To acquire him, the Saints, who had already selected defensive end Cameron Jordan with the 24th overall pick, moved back into the first round. The price was their 2011 second round pick and 2012 first round pick going to the New England Patriots.
At the time of the draft, Saints fans welcomed the move, having just seen their team lose a Wild Card playoff game on the road to the Seattle Seahawks; a game in which they had lost almost all of their running backs to injury.
It was the birth of the "Ingramania" movement. The Who Dat Nation, which is comprised in great part of LSU fans (who almost unanimously despise Alabama, Ingram's Alma mater) did not care one bit about Ingram's collegiate affiliation since he was going to be the savior of the Saints often moribund running game.
Like in any relationship, the initial phase of passion and hot embraces quickly gave way to the cold reality. Let's take a quick look at Mark Ingram Jr's three seasons with the Saints.
During his rookie season, Ingram rushed 122 times for 474 yards, a respectable average of 3.9 yards per carry (ypc). He also had five rushing touchdowns. However, he missed a total of eight games with a foot injury, including the last six (four in the regular season and two in the playoffs).
The fracture between Ingram and a faction of the Saints fanbase began early in 2012, when although on injured reserve and unavailable to play for the Saints, Ingram was seen running with joy on the sidelines of the Mercedes Benz Superdome while his Alabama Crimson Tide bludgeoned their bitter SEC West rivals LSU Tigers during the BCS National Championship game.
As ridiculous and irrational as it may sound (to be fair, there isn't much rationality involved when it comes to rivalries), with Ingram not living up to his billing as the future "franchise running back" for the Saints, he quickly became "that oft-injured running back from Alabama" to many Saints fans, especially the ones rooting for the Purple and Gold of LSU.
This is the season during which Mark Ingram unfairly gained the label of bust from many, not only within the Saints fanbase but also around the NFL.
Because the Saints fell behind in so many games (let us not rehash the 2012 defense), they had to throw the ball so much more often than they could try to run it. Ingram saw double digit rushing carries only once in the first eight games of the season (16 rushes for 53 yards and a 3.3 ypc in week 2 at Carolina). In the other seven games, he had respectively six, five, five, five, seven, three and seven carries. Four times during that span he rushed for a total of 16 yards or less, averaging 2.5 yards during those games. That included an awful three carries for seven yards performance against Denver in week seven.
In the second half of the season however, New Orleans committed to the running game a lot more. Only once in the last eight games did Ingram not reach double digits carries. He averaged 13 attempts over the last eight weeks of the year and a healthy 4.1 ypc. Ingram finished the season with a total of 156 carries for 602 yards (a 3.9 ypc, same as he had during his rookie year).
These numbers clearly show that with an increased workload in the backfield, Ingram's average yards-per-carry got better, indicating that he is the type of running back who needs to be given the ball several times in order to get into a rhythm and be truly effective.
Bad reputations however are as diehard as cockroaches and the "Ingram is a bust" talk had already started spreading league-wise.
Last season, the injury bug revisited Mark Ingram with a vengeance. After playing in all 16 games in 2012, the Saints running back played in the first two games of the season before having to sit out the next five games with yet another foot injury.
At that point, Ingram had rushed 17 times for 31 yards and a ridiculous 1.8 yards per carry. The "Ingramania" wave had been fully replaced by the "Antingram" protesters, some of which wanted the Saints to simply cut him and permanently replace him on the roster with rookie undrafted free agent running back Khiry Robinson.
Then came week nine of the season and a matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, which was Ingram's second game after returning from his injury. The embattled running back got the ball 14 times and rushed for a professional career-high of 145 yards (10.4 ypc).
From that point of the season on, Ingram averaged 5.1 yards per rush as the Saints entered the playoffs as a Wild Card. He finished the regular season with 78 rushes for 386 yards (4.9 ypc).
In the playoffs, Ingram picked up right where he left off in the regular season. In the Wild Card round, he rushed 18 times for 97 yards (5.4 ypc) and a touchdown in the Saints 26-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the divisional round, Ingram rushed (only) 10 times against the vaunted Seahawks offense for a very good 49 yards (4.9 ypc), with all of those yards gained while the outcome of the game was still in the balance.
In the 2013 season, playoffs included, Ingram rushed 106 times for 532 yards (5.0 ypc). Not too shabby, especially within the "running back by committee" offense run by Sean Payton in New Orleans.
Now with the offseason upon us, the Saints could be faced with an interesting dilemma regarding their soon-to-be fourth year running back. It is widely speculated that New Orleans tried trading Ingram during the regular season, as he was recovering from a toe injury. Predictably, they couldn't find any dance partners, given Ingram's injury history and general ineffectiveness.
After returning from his injury however, Ingram showed not only flashes of the talent New Orleans saw in him when they drafted him three years ago, more importantly he displayed the ability to consistently play at a high level for consecutive games, at times in difficult weather conditions (as was the case in Philadelphia and Seattle).
With the tape of Ingram's second half of the season in the hand of general managers across the NFL, it isn't too far-fetched to imagine that there could be some inquiries with the Saints about Ingram's availability for an offseason trade.
Entering a contract year, Ingram is likely to go all-out and have his long-awaited breakout season next year, as he tries to impress not only the Saints but potential suitors for the 2015 offseason.
Should the Saints field a good offer for him, should they trade the former Alabama running back and hand the wheel to the Saints running back truck to Khiry Robinson?
When given the chance last season, Robinson seized his opportunity and proved that he has the ability to successfully run the ball in the NFL, while avoiding the big mistake (fumbling). He finished the regular season with 54 rushes for 224 yards (4.1 ypc) and a touchdown. He was even better in the playoffs, rushing for 102 yards on 21 attempts (4.9 ypc) and one touchdown.
On the other hand, could New Orleans use a "beastmode" Mark Ingram for one year, but then face the risk of either having to pay him a lot of money when he becomes a free agent after next season or see him go to another team without any compensation for the team?
Answering those tough questions is the reason why they pay Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton the big bucks. In the meantime, what do you think?