Ever since Sean Payton and Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans, the Saints’ passing game has been among the best in the league. The run game, however, is a different story. In the now 7 ½ seasons that have passed since the duo arrived, the team’s run game has finished higher than 19th in the league only twice. Each year, fans, coaches and analysts try to find the reason and each season they find reasons from the offensive line to coaching upheaval. While each of these smaller reasons from year to year may indeed be valid, there’s a much larger issue that spans the seasons. There’s a fundamental flaw in the way the Saints develop running backs.
It seems that when the Saints bring in new running backs to develop, they tend to get pigeon-holed into one of two categories: the “thumpers” and the “dual-threats”. Since 2006, they’ve brought in nine different running backs to develop. This doesn’t include veterans Julius Jones or Ladell Betts during the 2010 season. Of these nine, three would fit into the “dual-threat” category. Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles were all shaped in the current offense to spend a fair amount of time in both the run and pass game.
Five of the remaining six fall into the “thumper” category (Travaris Cadet’s role has yet to be truly determined). These are used strictly in the run game and rarely if ever show up as a receiver. There are several problems with this approach though. When a player is only used one way, it makes it far easier to defend them. The other key problem is that in most of these players’ cases the team is simply throwing away a receiving option, which seems odd for a team so well known for spreading the ball around.
The first instance of this was Mike Bell during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In his one year playing college football at Arizona, he had 19 receptions. Then in his rookie year out in Denver, Bell caught 20 of the 27 passes that came his way. For some reason though, in his 20 games with New Orleans he was only targeted a total of 6 times resulting in 5 receptions.
Also during the 2009 season, Lynell Hamilton suited up for 11 games. In those games he was only targeted 7 times resulting in 5 receptions. In three seasons at San Diego State he averaged 15 catches per season.
Following Bell’s departure as a restricted free agent and Hamilton being waived following a torn ACL, the Saints turned to Chris Ivory in 2010. Despite repeatedly ending up injured, he still managed 15 receptions in his final two seasons at Washington State. In the 26 games he played in for the Saints, the ball only came his way 4 times. Ivory did manage to reel in 3 of those passes.
With Ivory’s injury issues a concern, the Saints traded back up into the 1st round of the 2011 draft to take Mark Ingram. During his three seasons at Alabama, he averaged 20 receptions per season. While working out with his new NFL teammates during the lockout it wasn’t uncommon to see him catching screen passes from Brees. During actual games though, it has been a different story. In 28 games, Ingram has only had the ball thrown to him 23 times while managing 17 receptions.
Following the trading away of Chris Ivory during this past spring’s draft, the team signed undrafted free agent Khiry Robinson. Although the sample size is small so far, there’s reason for concern that the coaching staff may be leading him down the same path as Bell, Hamilton, Ivory and Ingram. Through his first 5 games, Robinson hasn’t even been looked at in the passing game.
For whatever reason, the Saints coaching staff is not fully developing their running backs. Players who fall into the “thumper” category seem to serve one purpose only: run the ball. The glaring problem with that approach is that it makes them far easier to defend. When opposing defenses see these particular players, they know either the run is coming or they’ll be pass-blocking. There’s no realistic threat of a screen when certain players are on the field.
The black & gold need to fully develop all of their running backs in the passing game rather than just a select few. Even if they’re not a regular part of the passing offense, they need to be used enough to leave the threat of a pass in the minds of defenders regardless of which running back is on the field. After all, it’s not like these players simply can’t catch. Bell, Hamilton, Ivory and Ingram were only targeted a total of 61 times as pros, but they managed to catch 45 of those passes. That’s a 74% completion rate. Why on Earth would a pass-happy offense simply throw away an opportunity like that?
Obviously it’s too late to do anything about Bell, Hamilton and Ivory. However, there’s still a very slim chance of salvaging some sort of performance out of Ingram (or at least helping his trade value) as well as preventing Robinson from heading down the same path as his four predecessors. It’s time to end the parade of one-dimensional running backs that has been coming through the Saints’ locker room in recent years and actually develop the talent already on the roster.