Most teams have only two backs they would even consider throwing on the field for any significant stretch of play. And often only one of those particular guys is the kind of talent that legitimately scares defenses.
The Saints have four backs they’ll throw on the field at any time, in almost any situation. And every one of them scares the crap out of defensive coordinators.
Of course each one has a particular skill set that in the past Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael have utilized to maximize the abilities of each. For instance, Darren Sproles is clearly the guy you want to line up all over the field.
To a degree Pierre Thomas can be used in a similar function. But his most valuable asset for the team is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and run between the tackles in short-yardage situations.
Chris Ivory isn’t much of a pass protector or receiver, but he has great speed to get to the edge of a defense and threaten it for a big play each time he touches the ball.
Finally Mark Ingram is in many ways the most complete back—almost a Deuce McAllister clone with his ability to run effectively in the base package, pass protect and create lanes in check down situations for Drew Brees.
Each of those assessments is based on past performance. And past performance is generally the best indicator of future success, or lackthereof.
Here is the statistical data to show the effectiveness of each player as a runner (statistics from 2011 regular season).
Statistics courtesy of nfl.com/neworleanssaints.
The nice thing about statistics is that they reveal the final results of what took place. And they are a good indicator of what will take place in the future. But they are not wholly sovereign.
If they were, you'd look at Darren Sproles' 6.9 yards per carry figure and assume the Saints should hand him the ball 75 percent of the time. The statistics are nearly incapable of revealing the truth that Sproles was effective in the run game primarily because of the relative lack of carries.
A high percentage of his carries came in long-yardage situations and/or third down situations when the defense was clearly expecting pass plays. Many of his carries were inside zone plays or stretch plays to the outside designed to use his quick cut athleticism and speed.
Clearly he is not built to hold up for 15-plus carries per game. Instead the Saints are, and will continue to be, wise to give him six-to-eight carries per game and watch his yards per carry average stay close to the 6.9 of 2011.
In much the same way, Mark Ingram looks like a horrible running back based on his yard per carry average. But as shown here, Ingram was not as bad a year ago as the statistics seem to suggest.
Ingram provided a number of big plays in 2011 in the 10 games he was featured. Of course health concerns abound as Ingram enters his sophomore campaign at the NFL level, but if healthy, Ingram is the No. 1 back on this team.
He is the type of runner who needs the carries to gain his rhythm and feel for the game. Plus the added carries give him more opportunities to hit a big run and simply keep the chains moving.
As the true starting back, Ingram should be given 15-20 carries per game. That will allow him to hit one or two big runs and hit a number of other productive chain-moving efforts.
As for Pierre Thomas, we've already mentioned his greatest value to the team is in the passing game. That said, he is a great in-between-the-tackles runner who excels in short-yardage situations.
He needs to register 10 carries every game, with approximately eight of them coming in short-yardage and goal-line situations. If he hits that 80 percent mark it means two very positive things for the Saints' offense.
First, it means the team is keeping the chains moving on first and second down. Second, it means the team is getting to the red zone and in scoring position regularly.
And the result should be a high conversion percentage since Thomas is one of the league's finest short-yardage backs.
Finally there's an interesting dilemma for the Saints and as the one writing this column. That is of course, what to do with Chris Ivory? Does he play and get carries? Does he even make the roster?
I've spoken ad nauseam this offseason about how Chris Ivory should be dealt or waived for the sake of the cap and the future of the Saints' organization. Most likely he would command a fifth or sixth round pick in the draft should he be dealt to a running back-starved team.
But for the sake of argument here, let's assume the Saints elect to keep him on the roster. In that scenario the Saints would maintain that awkward stutter dance where Ivory is clearly worthy of carries, but not the best option due to his ineffectiveness in passing game.
He likely waits until one of the top three miss a game before seeing the field and getting carries. And that of course is not the ideal scenario for anyone involved.
If he were to replace Ingram (seemingly the most likely circumstance) he'd probably get the 15 carries Ingram should be getting.
If he were to replace Thomas, the team would be screwed since they'd have no legitimate short-yardage back. Ivory and Ingram could try to replace Thomas but would invariably not do a good enough job.
And if he were to replace Sproles, Thomas would essentially take over Sproles' role in the offense and the team would slide Ivory into Thomas' departed role.
Of course the team could elect to replace Ivory with rookie Travaris Cadet. Doing so would eliminate the awkwardness that exists when a player of Ivory's caliber is sitting in team warmups on the sideline for multiple games while healthy.
Cadet would be more than happy to show off on the practice squad and scout team while waiting for an injury to get in a regular season game.
Overall though, the main point is this. The Saints under Pete Carmichael ought to run the ball 35-plus times per game in 2012. In 2011, they won every game in which they ran more than 25 times.
But with less explosion at the receiver spot, the running game has to pick up the slack. And that's exactly why Ingram, Sproles and Thomas need to combine for 35-plus carries. They are all explosive with the ball in their hands.
For the sake of argument we can all agree that swing passes, screens and the like in many ways count as running plays. So even if the team does not have a literal 35 rushing attempts it needs 35 'real runs'.
Who should be the Saints' primary ball-carrier (50% or more carries)?
That will allow Drew Brees to operate with the clean pocket that playaction and effective running creates. It makes the offensive lineman's job easier. And it makes the pass offense less predictable.
Of course it's all a lot easier said than done, especially if the team finds itself in a desperate situation such as down 10 in the fourth quarter.
That's why running early and often is the key. That's when Mark Ingram's presence is so important. And that's what will allow for Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas to be most effective as well.
If the running game is flowing, the rest of the offense will. That's the Saints' formula, or it should be, in 2012.