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The Saints’ Running Back Tandem Could Be The Best In History

The New Orleans Saints entered the season on a treadmill of mediocrity. Three straight years of 7-9 meant the team was not good enough for the playoffs and not quite bad enough to give up and rebuild. But the party has returned to Bourbon Street this season as New Orleans has won seven straight games and, according to FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, now has an 88 percent chance of making the playoffs. But perhaps most surprising is how the Saints are winning games. They are doing the most un-Saintly of things: running all over teams.

Drew Brees and the Saints have never been shy about scoring an obscene number of points, traditionally through their passing attack. But the 2017 version of this offense is being spearheaded by a duo of running backs, veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. The league has not seen a two-headed monster like this in quite some time — in fact, the pair is on pace to be the most productive backfield tandem in nearly 40 years.

Through nine weeks, Ingram and Kamara have tallied 1,654 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) and are currently on pace for nearly 3,000 combined yards, with Ingram on pace for 1,536 yards and Kamara for 1,404. To put this production in perspective, consider that there have been only 10 pairs of backfield mates since the 16-game era began in 1978 who each totaled at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. This last happened in 2009, when Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did it for the Panthers. But that duo combined for only 2,641 yards — 300 fewer than the projected output of Ingram and Kamara. The only backfield pair to top the Saints’ duo’s 16-game pace was Walter Payton (1,875 yards) and Roland Harper (1,332 yards), with a total of 3,207 for the 1978 Bears.

Ingram and Kamara might just make history

The most combined receiving and rushing yards from scrimmage (YSCM) for a running back duo (minimum 1,200 yards per running back), 1978-2017

TEAM PLAYER YSCM PLAYER TOTAL
CHI (1978) Harper 1332
1875 Payton 3207
NO (2017*) Ingram 1536
1404 Kamara 2940
CLE (1985) Byner 1462
1401 Mack 2863
SF (1984) Craig 1324
1492 Tyler 2816
NE (1985) James 1587
1206 Collins 2793
JAX (2006) Jones-Drew 1377
1388 Taylor 2765
CAR (2009) Stewart 1272
1369 Williams 2641
WSH (1983) Riggins 1376
1226 Washington 2602
NO (2006) Bush 1307
1255 McAllister 2562
ARI (1995) Centers 1216
1313 Hearst 2529
CIN (1988) Brooks 1218
1265 Woods 2483

* Projected based on 9 games

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

If anything, Ingram and Kamara are not being done justice with this projected yardage total. That’s because at the beginning of this season, this two-headed monster had three heads. For the first quarter of the season, Kamara and Ingram split duties with free-agent signing and likely future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. The experiment didn’t work. Not familiar with sharing running duties, Peterson was giving coach Sean Payton death stares after one week and was traded away after four. With Peterson gone, Kamgram was set to take off in earnest: In the five games since, the duo has tallied 1,129 scrimmage yards with a near perfect split (569 by Ingram, 560 by Kamara). That’s 226 yards per game or an absurd 3,616-yard pace for a full season.

Even comparing this pair with Walter Payton and Roland Harper doesn’t quite capture the unique state of the Saints’ offense. Harper was a fullback and thus usually on the field with Payton. That’s not the case in New Orleans, where both players are running backs and seldom on the field at the the same time. For example, in Week 10, while the duo was steamrolling the hapless Bills defense for a combined 269 yards and four rushing touchdowns (three by Ingram), Kamara was on the field for 37.7 percent of offensive snaps and Ingram 48.1 percent.

In that game, the Saints looked like they were coached by Vince Lombardi and not Sean Payton: They ran the ball on 24 consecutive plays, the first time that’s happened in an NFL game since the Giants called 26 straight runs in a 1989 win against the Cowboys, according to Elias Sports Bureau. That’s a shocking transformation given that during the past three full seasons combined, the Saints have had 91 more pass attempts than any other team. And while Drew Brees has thrown for 30 or more touchdowns for nine straight years,1 11 of the Saints last 14 offensive touchdowns have come via the ground. That’s unusual for any team in 2017, let alone New Orleans. Through Week 10, more than two-thirds of offensive TDs leaguewide (67.6 percent) have come via the air.

But make no mistake about Brees’s Hall of Fame skills: They’re still intact. His yards per attempt of 8.0 is third best of his career,2 and his 104 passer rating ranks fifth. In the NFL this year, those numbers rank fifth and fourth, respectively. So despite the historic success of Ingram and Kamara, don’t expect defenses to stack defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the run.

And this newfound style of play is a luxury given that the Saints are doing another thing out of character this year: playing defense. The suddenly stout unit hasn’t allowed more than 200 yards to an opponent in two straight games and is fifth-best overall in points allowed after finishing no better than 28th the prior three seasons.

So the Saints have unusual balance not only in their backfield but throughout the entire team, paving a path for them to run where no one anticipated heading into the 2017 campaign: straight to the Super Bowl.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. When Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister made the table above in 2006, Brees threw for 26 TDs.

  2. His first season in San Diego, in which he played just one game, doesn’t qualify.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

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