When the New Orleans Saints lost running back Pierre Thomas on their opening drive in a January 15 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, it completely changed the game. While the Saints still had chances to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game, it was clear that the team's running game was missing its key player. Heading into the 2012 season, New Orleans should now be preparing to hand the ball to Thomas early and often this year.
Rookie Mark Ingram was given many chances early in 2011. While he led the team in rushing yards in eight of the first 12 games, he also received more carries than Thomas in all eight of those contests. However, Thomas ended the year with better numbers, despite being given fewer rushing attempts. Ingram played in 10 games and rushed 122 times, totaling 474 yards and five touchdowns. Thomas played in all 16 games and had 110 attempts, managing 562 yards and five scores.
Overall, Thomas averaged 5.1 yards per carry, more than a yard better than Ingram's 3.9 average. Of course, Thomas also excels in the Saints' passing game. In 2011, Thomas caught 50 passes for another 425 yards. By comparison, Ingram had only 11 receptions and 46 receiving yards.
As a Saints fan, I understand Ingram was a rookie and played through injuries before ending his season early. I definitely want to see him have a chance to contribute in 2012 and like what he can bring to the short-yardage schemes. But I have also watched Thomas play in this offense for years and understand the true value he brings to the New Orleans Saints.
Of course Darren Sproles led the team with 603 rushing yards while rushing only 87 times, maintaining an average of 6.9 yards per carry. However, Sproles' attempts will always be limited, and he likely could not be a featured back who carries the ball twenty times a game. On the other hand, Christopher Ivory does have feature-back potential and has done well in his brief career when given a chance. He will first have to remain healthy and find a way to crack into the rotation of a crowded and talented backfield.
For now, I am hoping the Saints enter the 2012 season giving Thomas every chance to carry the ball and the team. Sproles is the league's best receiver at the running back position, but as we learned in the last postseason game, Thomas brings a lot to the running game. I think it's time to give him the ball more.
Mike Patton is a sports fan who grew up in New Orleans cheering for the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Cubs, and LSU Tigers. As a kid in 1987, he made his first trip to Wrigley Field and also slept outside of the Louisiana Superdome to purchase playoff tickets for the Saints' first postseason appearance. Follow Mike on twitter @MikePattonGBS.
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