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Saints Running Back Mark Ingram Faces Contract Year, Uncertain Future

Saints running back Mark Ingram is either loved or hated by Who Dats, and this is his last chance to prove his worth. It's a contract year for the former Heisman Trophy winner. Will he finally live up to his potential?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

I think the Cowboys are one of only two teams in all of sports that engender love and hate to that extreme. The other is the Yankees. You love the Yankees or you hate the Yankees."

Al Michaels famously said these words about two of the most popular sports franchises in history. The Saints organization has all of the love and hate rolled into one player: Mark Ingram.

Like his 1st round predecessor in Reggie Bush, Ingram has either drawn the ire of fans from his lack of production, or garnered support from his untapped potential. Mark Ingram has shown spurts of the young back many were excited about coming out of Alabama, but we have yet to see that talent come forth in the form of the elusive 1,000 yard season or even a Pierre Thomas like 700 yard season.

It is a valid argument that this rushing achievement is hard to obtain under Sean Payton. In Payton's tenure as coach of the Saints, only one running back has reached 1,000 yards. Deuce McAllister barely breached the mark in Sean Payton's first year as head coach back in 2006 when he rushed for 1,057 yards. The closest anyone has got since then, you ask? Pierre Thomas at 793 yards in 2009.

So, where does that leave Mark Ingram? Personally,  I've seen improvement every year Ingram has received opportunities to carry the rock. Statistically speaking Ingram was the best runningback on the Saints roster last year averaging 4.9 yards a carry. Not only was this a full yard increase from his previous year, but it led the entire Saints team.

This one stat alone, however, is not enough to vindicate a player like Ingram this far into his career, so lets dig a little deeper. One positive I find in pouring through Ingram's film and situational stats is that he was efficient on any surface. He ran just as hard and just as effective on grass as he did on the Dome's turf. I can't emphasize enough how critical this is for a team whose road woes have been hammered into us by the media for the past year. The reality is our team struggles as a whole when travelling. What if Ingram helps counter that?

On Grass:  49 carries, 249 yards for a 5.1 average. (this includes playoff games)
On Turf:     57 carries, 283 yards for a 5.0 average.

Once again, these stats alone aren't enough to earn both the respect from his doubters and the contract he is seeking. Yet, they do force us to consider Ingram as better than most give him credit for. As a comparison, Pierre Thomas, the fan favorite at the running back position, earned a measly 2.6 yards per carry average when running on grass.  I've been a proponent of a return to the run game for a couple of years now and Mark Ingram is why. Truthfully, I don't think we are "bad" on the road, but, we are "average".  Everyone knows that if we are in the Dome we are one of the hardest teams in the NFL to play against. We need to be able to carry that when we leave New Orleans.  You do that on the backs of your run game. That is our future. That's what Pierre Thomas told us last year,

" ... There's going to be more focus this year on that ground game than any year. He said we've got to get back to running the ball, having 100-yard games nonstop. I can't wait. I'm excited, and I know everybody else is excited."

We know now that never happened. For different reasons, Coach Payton didn't stay glued to the run game all season, but we did begin to see his early plans come to fruition towards the end and in the playoffs. Payton found an effective combo and deadly 1-2 punch in Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson that he may continue to lean on in 2014.

What does all this mean for the future of this young back? If Coach Payton continues with the style of game-planning he implemented against both Philadelphia and Seattle, we could see players like Robinson and Ingram both shining. We could see Ingram's future becoming a little less uncertain and maybe a cap friendly contract being offered to him. One thing is certain, however, if we see more of the same this year that we've seen the past three years, Ingram might very well be gone.

No matter what side of the Ingram fence you sit on, give him respect for one thing: very few players have faced the ridicule from fans that Ingram has, yet he has stayed positive, never lashed out and continued to love and be loyal to the city of New Orleans. His character and class are what we all want to see from players no matter their production. With the starts of OTAs Tuesday we'll begin to see more of the plans for the offenses future going into the 2014-2015 season, and how much Ingram is a part of those plans.

As always, I welcome your comments, critiques and all around banter. God Bless!