WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — If ever there was a square peg in the NFL being forced into a round hole, it would be Saints running back Mark Ingram.
Ingram, a slashing, between-the-tackles runner and former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, often appears out of place in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense.
In three seasons with the Saints, the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Ingram has flashed his physical running style at times, but has never been on the field long enough make a huge impact.
Even in his best season (602 yards in 2012), he didn’t average 10 carries per game and finished 31st in the league in rushing yards.
Doubtlessly, a lot of that is the Saints’ approach to offense, where they have recently been at or near the top in passing yards with Drew Brees throwing to the likes of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, but languishing in the bottom 10 teams as far as rushing yards.
Perhaps that’s why the Saints declined their option to pick up the fifth year of Ingram’s contract in 2015, making the former first-round draft pick a free agent at the end of this season. The move makes sense monetarily, as the Saints would have owed Ingram $5.2 million in base salary in 2015.
So perhaps Ingram will use his contract situation as motivation for the coming season.
“Of course, every year is a big year,’’ Ingram said Saturday following the morning practice on The Greenbrier grounds. “But there’s special emphasis on this year, and it’s important to come out and have a great camp and get out to a fast start.
“I’m just focused, man. I’ve always been focused. It’s a contract year, but I just have to play football. Go out there and be the best player I can be and the rest will take care of itself. There’s no need to get anxious about what happens in the future. You have to handle what you can handle, and that’s today.’’
The Saints have hinted that Ingram will get touches this season as he gets perhaps a last chance to make it work in New Orleans.
“We have high expectations for Mark,’’ said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis earlier this week. “We’ve seen a lot of good things from him in the past. He’ll be a core player for us this season.
“We’ve discussed the reasons why we didn’t take the option for the last year. We expect Mark to do well, and he’ll get a contract from someone. Hopefully from us, but certainly some team in the NFL.’’
As the regular season wound down last year and the weather got colder and the playoffs approached, Ingram made an occasional impact pounding the ball at opposing defenses.
In November against the Cowboys, he carried 14 times for 145 yards and a touchdown. In December at Carolina, it was 13 totes for 83 yards.
Ingram also had two solid playoff games, both on the road. Against the Eagles, he ran 18 times for 97 yards and a TD and caught three passes for 17 yards as the Saints picked up their first-ever road playoff win. The next week at Seattle, he carried 10 times for 49 yards in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
“We started running the ball some more,’’ Ingram said of his late flourishes, “and I started catching the ball some more. I think when I have the chance to run the ball and the opportunity to touch it, I can be effective.
“That’s what you’ve got to do with the running game. That’s why it’s a battle. Every run isn’t gonna be 10 yards, 15 yards. You have to live with some 2-yard runs and some getting-back-to-the-line-of-scrimmage runs. Just keep plugging away at it and you’ll pop those 40-yarders, those 30-yarders, those long ones. It’s just a battle and you have to keep at it.’’
There’s also the train of thought that the Saints are going to invest a lot of camp time in Khiry Robinson, a former free-agent signee who also showed promise late last season, running for 152 yards on 33 carries in the team’s final three games.
Some analysts think Ingram’s time has come and gone. In his three seasons with the Saints, he’s rushed for a total of only 1,462 yards and 11 TDs — lower numbers than his 2009 Heisman season with the Crimson Tide (1,658 yards, 17 TDs).
“It’s always a battle,’’ Ingram said. “Everybody out here’s in a battle, but that’s what’s awesome about it. We all push each other to get better and ... do what we can to help the team win games. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure. I just go out and do what I do — play football, what I’ve been doing my whole life, be the best I can be and everything else can handle itself.
“I have higher expectations for myself than anybody can have, any coach. I work my butt off, but be even keel about it. You’re never as good as they say you are and you’re never as bad as they say you are.’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.