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Chasing the Ghosts of Yesteryear

Sean Payton traded up to get Alvin Kamara, because he is haunted by the ghost of Darren Sproles

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There has been a lot of hand-wringing among the Who Dat Nation after the Saints drafted running back Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft. Not only were the Saints not selecting a pass rusher (if you weren’t aware, during the draft “pass rushers” became to Saints fans what Moby Dick was to captain Ahab) but on top of that, o great sacrilege, New Orleans traded up to get him!

In truth, the selection of the elusive scat back out of Tennessee shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Not only will Kamara play a pivotal role in Payton’s offense as our own John Sigler greatly detailed here, running backs with Kamara’s makeup are like a strongly-addictive painkiller to Sean Payton.

Let me take you down memory lane:

In 2006 Sean Payton discovered his football drug of choice: a light-on-his-feet running back, more a receiving back than an actual tailback. A matchup nightmare, capable of lining up in the backfield with the same ease as he’d settle in the slot as a receiver. The player was Reggie Bush and his arrival in Payton’s offense meant a lot of long and sleepless nights for defensive coordinators around the NFL. Sure, Bush didn’t live up to the oversized, unreasonable expectations that every pundit had for him out of the college football machine that was Southern California. But within the Saints’ offensive attack, Bush was a chess queen, a central piece around which the whole offense would revolve. In New Orleans, Reggie didn’t need to run for 1000 yards between the tackles, that wasn’t his role. On the other hand, wheel routes, go-routes, slants, reverse plays, decoy plays and even the anecdotal, catch-the-defense-off-guard run-up-the-middle play, that was his wheelhouse.

Here are Bush’s rushing and receiving numbers from 2006, his first season playing for Sean Payton and alongside Drew Brees:

Reggie Bush (Rushing)

Reggie Bush (Receiving)

As you can see, Bush had an outstanding rookie season, with eight touchdowns (rushing and receiving). The first-year running back added one touchdown to that total on a punt return. If his rushing average was subpar (3.6 yard-per-attempt), Bush’s receiving game was worthy of some of the better wide receivers and tight ends in the NFL. And while the former Trojan never became some Barry Sanders-like superstar, he fulfilled his role in Payton’s offense to perfection during his five-year run in NOLA.

Having experienced the high of an offense featuring a versatile, nearly unguardable back, Sean Payton decided to do even better and upgrade as Bush’s era in New Orleans neared its end. The Saints acquired free agent running back Darren Sproles in 2011. Playing with Drew Brees and in Payton’s wide open scheme, Sproles would quickly become Reggie Bush 2.0. In his first year with the Saints he flourished and easily matched Bush’s production in both the rushing and receiving departments, as indicated by the numbers below:

Darren Sproles (Rushing)

Darren Sproles (Receiving)

Where Sproles’ 2011 play blew Bush’s 2006 out of the water however was in the return game. Although Bush did not return kicks in his rookie year for the Saints, he had 28 punt returns for 216 yards and one touchdown that year. Not too shabby huh? Think again: Sproles easily matched that too with 29 punt returns in 2011, with 294 yards and a touchdown. But the diminutive back added 40 kick returns for 1,089 yards and two touchdowns, with a long of 92 yards. Simply amazing.

But as the saying goes: “all good things must come to an end” and they all came crashing down for the Saints and Sean Payton following the 2013 NFL season. Sproles, who was deemed a bit long in the tooth was traded to Philadelphia for a paltry 5th round pick and Sean Payton started chasing the ghosts. Those of the departed Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.

Enter Travaris Cadet! An undrafted free agent running back that the Saints had signed in 2012 and who looked like he could fill the void. Nope. After a sinuous career path the saw him play in New Orleans for two seasons (2012-13), leave for two seasons (New England, San Francisco) then return in 2015, Cadet had his best season with the Saints in 2016, and yet his best efforts still pale in comparison to anything that Bush or Sproles ever did in the Black and Gold. For your information, here are Cadet’s numbers from last year:

Travaris Cadet (Rushing)

Travaris Cadet (Receiving)

Cadet is a serviceable back, but obviously nothing close to the type of talented Jack of all trades that Payton craves.

Enter C. J. Spiller! After experiencing one season without Sproles in 2014, Payton had to satisfy his fix and reached by signing Spiller to a lucrative four-year contract ahead of the 2015 season. In Payton’s mind, that was it! The Saints had finally rediscovered their secret offensive weapon, Spiller was going to be Sproles 2.0 (Or Reggie Bush 3.0 if you prefer). The Saints fanbase was cautiously optimistic. The faint hope was short-lived, just like Spiller’s failed stint in New Orleans, when he was either injured or performing more like Travaris Cadet than like Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush. In his two years in New Orleans, Spiller played in only 13 games and compiled a mesmerizing 112 yards rushing, 239 yards receiving and a grand total of two touchdowns. The experiment was an epic failure and I’ll spare you the detailed numbers.

Enter Alvin Kamara! Hopefully I’ll be writing a giddy piece about the former Volunteer star by the time the 2017-18 season is over, one in which we’ll be comparing Kamara’s first year in the Black and Gold favorably with those of Bush and Sproles. One thing we know for certain is that in the 2017-18 NFL season, Alvin will touch the ball a lot and Sean will give him every opportunity to remind us of Darren and Reggie before him.


Will Alvin Kamara live up to his draft selection?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Absolutely, he’ll thrive with Payton!
    (363 votes)
  • 15%
    He may, but he still cost too much
    (83 votes)
  • 0%
    Absolutely not, dumb pick!
    (5 votes)
  • 11%
    (62 votes)
  • 4%
    Can he eat burgers faster than Sproles?
    (23 votes)
536 votes total Vote Now