Alvin Kamara leads the league in forced winces, an unofficial stat that should be tracked and used in analytics somehow.
When you watch the New Orleans Saints running back do his ball-of-fury act, it's impossible not to wince over and over again. You do that because he's surely going to be brought down behind the line of scrimmage this time, or because a 215-pound human body isn't built to sustain so many blows and keep moving forward.
But then the league's leading Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate either wiggles away from contact or hammers through, just as he did repeatedly during the Saints' 31-21 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
It was a critical victory on two fronts. First and most importantly, the Saints triumphed over a division rival, clearing a major hurdle in their pursuit of the NFC South crown. And secondly, while led by Kamara the Saints made a loud statement: Their shiny new run-oriented offense bows to no one.
The Saints' overpowering offensive line controlled the point of attack all afternoon, clearing running lanes for liftoff against a Panthers defense that came into Week 13 ranked third against the run, giving up an average of only 83.2 yards per game.
The Saints nearly blew past that mark in one long play when Mark Ingram galloped into the open field for a 72-yard gain, setting up a second-quarter touchdown. They finished with 148 rushing yards, with 60 of those yards coming from Kamara on nine carries (6.7 yards per attempt).
But Kamara is so much more than a high-level contributor in one area. What separates the 22-year-old is that in only 12 games, he's already cemented himself as one of the NFL's most talented multi-purpose threats.
And as the league's official Twitter accounted noted, Kamara has reached that status while making history:
Kamara somehow was still available in the third round of the 2017 draft, and now he's redefining what it means to be a versatile running back on a near-weekly basis.
His latest eruption ended in 126 total yards, which was his sixth game with 100-plus yards from scrimmage. And we're only at the three-quarter mark of Kamara's rookie season.
He averaged nine yards per touch Sunday, and this season he is averaging 101.7 total yards per game. Kamara has been especially fiery over the Saints' last five games, a stretch when his week-by-week yardage totals just don't seem fair.
|Alvin Kamara's production since Week 9|
|Week||Rushing yards||Receiving yards||Total yards|
In that five-game span, Kamara has 100-plus-yard outings in each. He thrives when seemingly swarmed and sheds contact to keep plays alive.
Kamara did that Sunday on his way to two more touchdowns, the first coming during a nervous early moment for the Saints: 4th-and-goal in the first quarter from Carolina's 2-yard line.
He was whacked right at the line of scrimmage, and it felt like the laws of physics meant Kamara should have been sent backward by Shaq Thompson's hit. But he doesn't care much for science, and his body seems to be coated with some kind of linebacker repellent.
Thompson beelined in to deliver a blow that led to one of the aforementioned instant winces. Then he tumbled out of the play, and Kamara kept moving forward for six points.
The typical look of a play that seems doomed just doesn't apply to Kamara. He swats away arms and pinballs off bodies on his way to long chunk gains and touchdowns.
A parade of missed tackles came again during his second touchdown Sunday, this time on a 20-yard run when Kamara first faced contact behind the line of scrimmage.
When the play ended, two more would-be tacklers were left sprawled and watching as the rookie strutted to the end zone.
The final damage report was five missed tackles created as a runner. Please remember that came on a mere nine carries, and he forced another one as a receiver while averaging 5.89 yards after contact, all according to Pro Football Focus.
Alongside Ingram, who finished with 122 total yards Sunday, Kamara has created a scary, teeth-chattering reality for opposing defenses. An offense led by a still stellar Drew Brees no longer relies on its future Hall of Fame quarterback to win games on his own.
Brees is still capable of doing that, and Sunday he recorded his ninth game of 2017 with a 70-plus completion percentage. But the Saints offense has developed into a multi-dimensional unit, pushing the team to wins in nine of its last 10 games to sit alone atop the NFC South at 9-3.
The Saints control the division after sweeping the season series against the 8-4 Panthers, and the Atlanta Falcons are two games back following a loss Sunday. The first division title for New Orleans since 2011 is within reach thanks to the emergence of Kamara, and the pieces are in place for a deep January run that could extend into early February.