The People Vs. Mark Ingram
6 Posted on September 18th, 2013 by Himself
Mark Ingram stands accused of being a bust, a liability to the Saints' offense. The evidence may look damning, but after a second look it may mean something different.
Oyez, oyez, oyez. All those having business before this honorable court, draw near and ye shall be hoid. As soon as we finish dealing with the Mark Ingram case.
Ingram has been controversial from the start. A substantial minority of Saints fans succumbed to “Ingramania” in 2011; at least an equal number were outraged that the Saints mortgaged a portion of their future in order to spend a first-round pick (24th) on a running back, when they already had Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory in house. When they later signed Darren Sproles, the draft move seemed to make even less sense. But the promise of having the first real bell-cow back since Deuce McAllister clamped a lid on the dissent. WhoDatNation went into wait-and-see mode.
A lot of fans now feel they’ve seen enough, and they’re tired of waiting.
The indictment against Ingram is this: he ain’t no good. The guy who rumbled and butted his way to 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2009—a gaudy 6.1 ypc—and won the Heisman Trophy doing it, has yet to match that total as a pro. In two seasons and two games, he has only 1,107 yards to his credit, and his ypc is an anemic 3.8. Worse, in the first two games of 2013 his ypc is a horrendous 1.8. Teammates like Drew Brees and Zach Strief defend him, but fans wonder why Pierre Thomas is able to post a 5.1 ypc running behind the same line.
Of course, we as fans aren’t privy to any of the inside information. Has Ingram actually not recovered from the knee surgery that sidelined him at the beginning of his final season with Alabama? Is he one of those mythical backs who needs to establish a “rhythm” before he’s effective? Or is he simply the latest college phenom to go bust once he reaches the big leagues?
Well. He’s not the latest. That’s not even Trent Richardson, who supplanted Ingram at Alabama, surpassed him with 1,679 and 21 touchdowns in 2011, was drafted higher (3rd) by the Cleveland Browns, and has produced even less. Richardson’s career average now stands at 3.5 ypc, and he himself now stands in Colts blue, Cleveland having given up on him two games into his sophomore season.
It may be, then, that the Saints’ front office simply misjudged Ingram’s talent and ability. Playing for a national champion, behind one of the best lines in college football, against competition that is smaller, slower, and less talented by a degree of magnitude, helped to inflate Ingram’s reputation just as it would later inflate Richardson’s. If that’s the case…what do we do about it? Indianapolis is no longer an option.
The Prosecution’s Case
Murf Baldwin, who is single-handedly making Bleacher Report worth reading, has a breakdown of Ingram’s game against Tampa Bay. But he also mentions something that I don’t believe is a real phenomenon:
It’s a widely known fact that Ingram is a power back—or was one—who needs a hefty number of carries to get into a groove. The Saints run a scheme based on versatility. As such, they look for skill-position players who can be efficient in a minimal role.
I’m of the opinion that the back who “needs a lot of carries” is a myth. What happens is that a lot of carries tires out the defense: holes begin to gape wider, reaction times decrease, and a big back who isn’t afraid of contact can begin winning battles with gassed defenders. Ingram, however, doesn’t seem to like contact at all, except when he runs into his own blockers. He tends to make bad decisions, misses lanes, trips over his own feet, and falls down as soon as he’s hit. If you compare stats on Pro Football Focus, Pierre Thomas is tied for 6th in the league for yards after initial contact. Ingram is near the bottom of the list, at 54th, tied with the Steelers’ Isaac Redman.
Worse, it’s been pointed out on numerous occasions that defenses are able to key on Ingram when he comes into the game. He takes a handoff on well over half his snaps; Bradley Warschauer of Black and Gold Review has a chart comparing his contributions with those of Thomas, Darren Sproles, and the late Chris Ivory (who has gone to that big football junkyard in the
sky north). Ingram runs the ball on 57.6% of his snaps, compared to only 28.2% for Thomas and only 14.8% for Sproles. That makes any package featuring Thomas or Sproles harder to guess, which helps to make them more successful.
The Defense’s Rebuttal
And that might just be the explanation for what’s happening. Warschauer himself points out that Chris Ivory ran the ball even more when he was in—67.9% of the time—making it seem that Ingram was simply not taking advantage of the chances he got. But Ivory also tended to get carries late in games, when defenses were tired—and more importantly, late in the season. Ivory wasn’t even active until Week 9 last year, and he benefitted from three long runs of 56, 25, and 22 yards (he only had 40 carries), and a monster game against Atlanta in Week 10. His average last year was 5.4 ypc; take away those long runs, and Ivory ran for 117 yards on 37 carries—a 3.0 average. (So far this year, playing for the Jets, his average is 2.0.)
What people forget is that Ingram also got better as last year progressed. In the first eight games, he rushed for 178 yards on 54 carries—a 3.3 average. Over the second half of the season, he rushed for 424 yards on 102 carries—a 4.1 average. His overall average was 3.9, and if you take away his three longest carries—for 37, 31, and 23 yards—that drops his average down to 3.7. Not great, but better, and more consistent, than Ivory.
So it looks as though Ivory wasn’t as successful as first appeared, and both he and Ingram really were hurt by the way the Saints used them: not because either “needed to get in a rhythm,” but because the offensive packages they played a role in were disproportionately run plays, and were thus easier to defend against. And that leads to a suggestion that I made in a comment in my last post, which I’d like to expand upon.
Payton likes to use multiple personnel packages in order to take advantage of mismatches. For that reason—and contrary to the common perception—he tends to favor players who have unique skill sets. Reggie Bush was, and Darren Sproles is, the breakaway threat. Ingram was supposed to be the inside pounder. Pierre Thomas is good at everything; and the reason he’s the most successful just might be not that he’s good (which he is), but that he’s impossible to predict. He may run; he may catch; he may stay in and pick up blitzes. He does it all well.
But Payton also demands that his players be able to handle any role in a pinch, and so in theory Ingram should be able to run inside, run outside, catch screens, serve as an outlet receiver, and stay in to block. In theory.
Then why doesn’t he?
Saints skill players (unless they’re indispensible like Jimmy Graham) tend to get their snaps in dribs and drabs. They come in for a play, they go out for two, they come in for two, they go out for three, they come back in… All that substitution allows them to stay fresh, and takes advantage of whatever personnel mismatches the defense offers. But it also allows the defense to read the package. If they’ve scouted and practiced well, they should be able to predict pretty closely what play will likely be run out of that package, given the down, distance, and formation. And while I admit that I really don’t know, it seems to me that this is exactly what’s going on with our running game.
On a pass play, there are anywhere from a single receiver up to five. With the Saints, usually it’s the maximum. And with a passer like Drew Brees, the possibilities from any formation, with any personnel package, are staggering in their complexity. They’re simply harder to defend.
But a running play? Usually there’s only one back. If it’s Ingram, how difficult is it for a well-prepared defense to predict, based on the personnel and formation and the history of the film, what that back is going to do? The result is that when it’s a running play, Ingram faces a level of opposition that Pierre Thomas doesn’t—because Pierre is featured in more pass plays than runs. That makes it exponentially more difficult for the defense to predict what he’s going to do on any given play, from any given formation, with any given personnel package.
A lot of people have been calling for Pierre Thomas to be given more time on the field, at the expense of Ingram. And frankly, I agree. Pierre is simply better. But Ingram could be better than he currently is, if Sean Payton would make one small change. Without changing the “pitch count” at all, simply platoon his running backs not play-by-play, but drive-by-drive.
If Pierre Thomas’ percentage of handoffs went up, compared to the number of passing plays he participates in, that wouldn’t make him easier to defend against if at the same time Mark Ingram’s percentage of handoffs went down. If all the Saints’ backs were on the field for large blocks of time, rather than in dribs and drabs, it would make it harder for the defense to accurately predict what to expect. That should improve the effectiveness of both the run and pass games, while still keeping the players reasonably fresh, and getting the maximum out of all of them.
It would also allow for the “hot hand” to be given a dominant role in particular games. If Ingram gets on a roll (as, for instance, in last year’s shutout of Tampa Bay), fine: leave him in. You needn’t feel guilty, or change the game plan; you just allow the hot player to execute more of it. And it works because, without creating a readable tendency for any of the backs, the defense is left without a clue as to what to expect.
Instructions to the Jury
There are no rules. Hell, make up your own minds. And it’s okay to read up on the case in the media, too. Start with the above links; continue with new ESPNer Mike Triplett’s take and then on to the incendiary comments on Davedrew Heldbrough’s podcast. And don’t neglect Twitter (God, am I saying this!?), which has exploded recently in anti- and pro-Ingram fury. (Mostly anti-)
Then render your verdict. But remember: Sean Payton doesn’t care what you think. Or what I think. So prepare yourself for more of the same, and hope that Ingram is really better than he’s appeared to be so far. And keep this in mind, too: if Ingram is guilty of anything, it’s of not being Pierre Thomas. A first-rounder is too much to give up for a backup; but if Ingram can be a good backup, he’s still useful to the team.