Saints’ Ingram cherishing playoff run as uncertainty looms

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              New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) runs against the Philadelphia Eagles in the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Mark Ingram readily acknowledges that his last game with the Saints could come Sunday, when New Orleans hosts the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game.

But Ingram hasn’t given up on bucking conventional wisdom and remaining with New Orleans, even though his contract is expiring and the Saints will have to worry about signing younger, more productive running back Alvin Kamara to his second NFL contract in the next couple of years.

Combined, Ingram and Kamara give the Saints one of the most formidable backfield tandems in the NFL — and an answer to the Rams duo of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, which battered Dallas’ defense to the tune of more than 200 yards rushing last Saturday night.

It is a formula that can potentially extend the life of a rusher’s career and promote winning — two things at the top of mind for Ingram, who has become a veteran locker room leader while trying throughout his eight-year career to help get the Saints as far as they’ve gotten this season.

“We’ve got a good squad. I feel like we can do this type of thing for many more years,” Ingram said. “I’m not looking just to bail out of New Orleans.”

The 29-year-old Ingram, a 2009 Heisman Trophy winner with Alabama and first-round draft pick in 2011, had far from his best season, statistically speaking, in 2018. He had to sit out the first four games because of an NFL suspension stemming from the use of a banned substance.

During the Saints’ last 12 games, he rushed for 645 yards and six TDs, surpassing 100 yards in a game twice this season. He also caught 21 passes for 170 yards and one TD.

Such numbers represent a considerable decline from the previous two seasons, during which Ingram eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in each.

Yet coaches and teammates are quick to paint Ingram as one of those players whose impact goes beyond his own raw stats. They rave about his work ethic, leadership, loyalty and contagious, overt passion for the game and his team.

“He’s a great teammate. He cares,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. said, adding that it’s apparent Ingram’s teammates “respect his game, how he plays, how he goes out and gives effort.

“He’s always bringing his best,” Carmichael continued. “He just has a great relationship with so many guys.”

Kamara has said Ingram’s presence “frees me up” when they are in the same formation and asserts that they always have exhibited “a genuine care and support for each other,” even though they are technically competing for opportunities to have the ball.

“We look at it like, as long as we both know what we need to do, the team will be successful,” Kamara said.

Coach Sean Payton has extolled the value having both rushers available to help reduce the physical burden on each of them.

Ingram and Kamara together “has been pretty good for us,” Payton said. “It is much more difficult if you are limited to just one of those players.”

Ingram’s first few seasons in New Orleans were marred by injuries and unmet expectations. But in recent years, Ingram has become a fan favorite, and now sounds as if he struggles with the notion of playing elsewhere.

“I was drafted here. I met my wife here, my children were born here,” Ingram said. “Very rarely does anybody get to spend their career in one place. So, I love New Orleans. I love this team. I love this organization.

“I’ve had encouragement and support from so many people in this organization, so I just think of all those people who have helped me when people have counted me out,” Ingram added. “It’s a lot of people in this building who have helped me get to this point.”

Yet Ingram grew up keenly aware of the business side of the NFL. His father, Mark Ingram Sr., was an NFL receiver with four teams: The New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers.

“We’ll see what happens,” Ingram said, resigned to his uncertain future. “I hope we win a Super Bowl and hopefully everything works out.”