The tl;dr of it was this: Mark Ingram is perfectly capable of taking what the field gives him, but not capable of manufacturing more.
Here’s a classic example from this year’s season-opening win over Atlanta:
A seven yard gain is a positive rushing play, but to gain those yards Ingram simply does his job. When defenders disengage from blockers, as they inevitably do, they’re able to contain the damage because, while Ingram does nothing wrong here, he also does nothing right other than the simple avoidance of wrong.
Taking what the line gives you is fine, except when the line can only give you two yards and you’re unable to manufacture three or four. It’s then that you become consistently underwhelming, and produce two yard averages while other backs on the roster manage four or five.
But for much of the season’s final stretch things have been different for Ingram. One of many jokes on Saints Twitter last week was the hashtag #AngryIngram, which first anticipated and then celebrated a good performance by Ingram against the Eagles, perhaps because Ingram would be angry about Alabama’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Whatever the reason, though, Ingram’s performance has been visibly different lately. He’s flashed burst, power, balance, and tackle-breaking skills that he had rarely, if ever, shown before. In person, on TV, from the point of view of the fans, Mark Ingram doesn’t even look like the same player anymore.
“He looks like Ivory now,” says my wife, who still wears her Chris Ivory jersey.
Here’s what I mean when I say Ingram simply looks like a different football player now. First, take another look at the above run vs the Falcons. Now look at this six yard run from the Saints’ first drive against Philadelphia:
These two plays are great examples because they are so similar. The difference between them is this: Against Atlanta, Ingram gets five or six yards before a defender makes contact with him, and falls as soon as that contact is made; but against Philadelphia, the would-be tackler makes contact with Ingram within a yard of the line of scrimmage, yet Ingram breaks that tackle and then manufactures more yards after contact even after a pile of players closes in around him.
For a more superlative example, here’s a run from later in the game that is almost entirely manufactured by Ingram:
Every yard Ingram gains here is after contact. He breaks two tackles cleanly and nearly breaks a third–he never actually goes down. The defender just drives him out of bounds. This is the guy who, against Atlanta, ended up on his butt after a lone Falcons defender disrupted his clear path to the endzone? This is the guy who, so often, seemed to fall to mere arm tackles? No. It’s not. Mark Ingram looks like a different player now, around whom the Saints may be able to build their rushing attack.
What’s the explanation? Better effort? Actual anger? I don’t think so. I don’t think effort was ever Ingram’s problem. Was he limited by an injury not just this year but for most of 2012 and 2011? Possibly. That may even be the most likely answer. If Ingram has faced a series of minor, say, foot or ankle problems, he could very well have been robbed of his skills in a way that would make him appear average.
It’s also possible that this run of his is a temporary thing, something akin to those bursts of awesome the Saints occasionally got from Reggie Bush, but I’m not sure about that. I think, maybe, #AngryIngram is really Mark Ingram. That, maybe, he’s here to stay.