Confusion has most often been the name of the Saints backfield, with handing a ball to a running back treated like an obligation down in the Big Easy. But saddle up those frowns, kids, because with the one certainty — Darren Sproles — temporarily out, so too is the single outcome we knew to be true about the Saints backfield every week.
Sproles would catch passes, and run and dance and score a touchdown (he has four receiving touchdowns), and those dinks and dunks would essentially be the New Orleans running game. Everyone would be happy, and everyone would win. Except probably the Saints.
Now the smiles are scarce, and confusion is even more widespread than usual. Because as we saw last night, there’s so very little certainty in the Saints’ backfield without Sproles.
During the Saints’ 28-13 win over Philadelphia that was largely a product of Michael Vick having a large man in his face the second he touched a football on every play, New Orleans actually seemed to acknowledge that running the ball is normal in football. They handed off to a running back 24 times, a slight uptick from their weekly average of just 20.5 carries.
Progress? Progress. But the problem for fantasy purposes lied in how those carries were distributed. Namely, the problem was Chris Ivory.
Ivory was active for only the third time this season, and yet he led the Saints in touches, receiving 10 carries and converting them into 48 yards and a touchdown, with his longest run a 22 yarder. That will be enough to make him one of the top waiver claims tonight, which is really swell of him. Yep, we’re sure he’s a nice man and all, but he did absolutely nothing for anyone this week, since Ivory was started by about two guys who live in Iceland (he was started in 0.3 percent of ESPN leagues).
But it gets worse, or better, or something. No one expected the muddled mess that is the Saints backfield to be wiped entirely clean just because of Sproles’ absence, mainly because his skillset is so unique, and he doesn’t get many carries. He has 26 carries this year, while Pierre Thomas leads the team with 64. Still, the absence of one key body could have and should have sprinkled at least a small helping of clarity, amiright?
Nah. While Ivory will get the attention because he emerged suddenly and was highly effective after receiving exactly zero carries this year prior to last night, Mark Ingram was only slightly behind him in yardage, with 44 rushing yards on seven carries, and Thomas also had 44 yards, and he needed only six carries. All three busted out a long run too, with Ingram rumbling for 23, while Thomas ran for 19. Hell, even some guy named Travaris Cadet had a carry.
Thomas was widely pegged as the likely candidate to see the increase in touches and opportunities with Sproles out, as he was started in 33.5 percent of ESPN leagues, and Ingram only saw fake fields in 12.3 percent. There was a small victory for those who are still otherwise seeing little more than confusion when Thomas was on the field for the most snaps, participating in 21 while Ingram was featured in 17, and Ivory actually brought up the rear with 15.
But does that mean Ivory’s looks will increase now and he’ll be featured more prominently with Sproles out because he was more effective with fewer touches? Or will Thomas still maintain his edge in usage since he’s established himself more throughout the season, with his 4.7 yards per carry on 64 attempts overall this year?
Impossible questions are great fun. But since purely speculative guessing is also entertaining and it’s what I’m paid for, here’s my stab: the status quo will continue to suck. Thomas will indeed maintain his edge in snaps, but it’ll get so very, very thin, and with Sproles out Ivory will now be given a nearly equal workload after he impressed with his rumbling last night.
The problem is that Sproles was the linchpin, and the change of pace, and with him temporarily gone the Saints’ backfield consists of three running backs who function in nearly the same capacity: they run hard and straight and hit people, meaning the frustrating and unpredictable three-way split we saw Monday will likely continue, reducing all three to flex plays at best.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a fence to sit on.