There was a time not so long ago when we pretty much knew exactly what to expect from the Saints whenever they pretended to recognize running back as a position. On first and second down, it was a split between Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas, one that fluctuated depending on the distance, the hot hand, and the position of the moon in relation to Mars.

The real contributor, through, was/is Darren Sproles. You know him as the running back who was averaging 46.1 receiving yards per game before breaking his hand even though he’s, you know, a running back. That’s led to four receiving touchdowns for Sproles spread over just seven games, which is an incredible pace, and it’s made him a stud in point per reception leagues since he’s also averaging 5.6 receptions per game.

None of this is surprising, since — again as a running back — Sproles had 710 receiving yards last year. Now following a two-week absence he seems like he’s ready to return this week after being a limited participant in practice Wednesday, and then a full participant yesterday. That’s what we call progress, and for owners of Sproles who enjoy high-end if somewhat sporadic production from their running back (Sproles’ best game this year was 13 receptions for 128 yards, and his worst was, um, zero receptions for zero yards), good news is fun.

The problem for you now if you own any Saints running back is one that may have been anticipated, but that doesn’t make it suck any less. What exactly is going to happen with Ingram, Thomas, and Chris Ivory?

Sproles doesn’t have a major presence as an actual running back who runs since his carries have come quite randomly. However, in his five games prior to getting injured he had, in order, seven, five, five, five, and four carries. That’s the workload of a running back on the low end of a split, which is exactly the situation Ivory and Ingram have been involved in, and Thomas to a lesser extent too.

Forget about the yardage and production for a minute. Here’s the workload distribution for the three running backs over the two games since Sproles went down:

  • Thomas: 11 carries
  • Ivory: 17 carries
  • Ingram: 23 carries

Although Thomas is clearly on the low end as Ivory and Ingram ascend, there’s no definitive leader here. Between three running backs, there’s a separation of only 12 carries between the top and bottom over a two-game stretch. Thee-headed backfield defined, folks.

Taking into account their production only leads to more confusion. Ingram has showed some of his rumbling burst with 111 yards without Sproles, clipping along at an average of 4.8 yards per carry. While that’s swell, it’s Ivory who’s truly impressed after playing his first game of the season only two weeks ago, out-gaining Ingram with 120 yards at an incredible pace of seven yards per carry despite the lesser workload. Ivory’s outburst has included two straight games with a run of at least 20 yards and two touchdowns, one of which came on a 56-yard run last week against the Falcons.

That kind of quick rise can’t just fade into the ether now, and Ingram needs to continue receiving his higher workload too because his pounding style is ideal for a high volume of carries. So what we may arrive at when Sproles returns is a situation that actually benefits Sproles and plays to his strength, and everybody will win. Except if your name is Pierre Thomas.

Of course, this is just a piece of educated speculating here, because right now not even interim head coach Joe Vitt is confident in how his backfield rotation will shake out once Sproles returns. But here’s one rosy, optimistic scenario.

Sproles could be limited to a third-down back who’s used even more often — or perhaps solely — in passing situations. Yes, that sounds awful at first, but that’s what he was trending towards anyway. We’re talking about a running back here who was already receiving minimal carries, and he’s logged two games this year without taking a single handoff. In this backfield format, Sproles would be more regularly put in situations where he thrives. Regardless of where you drafted him, when you clicked that select button you did it wanting receiving production from Sproles, and rushing yards weren’t your priority.

Now he’ll likely, maybe, hopefully do that more often while Ivory and Ingram owners can continue smiling too as they’re still given opportunities to keep hot hands burning.

Happy Friday everyone. Since you all win here, go hug a stranger.

And now the links part of the links post…

  • In the least surprising news of forever, Michael Vick has officially been ruled out, and Nick Foles is starting at quarterback for the Eagles this weekend. [NFL.com]
  • It doesn’t sound like Wes Welker’s ankle injury is serious. [Boston Herald]
  • Dwayne Bowe really wants to stay in Kansas City, which makes him the only football player who wants to stay in Kansas City. [Kansas City Star]
  • We’re getting pretty close to a Pierre Garcon sighting. [Washington Times]
  • Ryan Mathews is till the worst. [CBS]