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Mark Ingram's success in leading role not lost on Sean Payton

METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton has been asked the burning question about Mark Ingram's playing time repeatedly over the past three weeks, both directly and indirectly.

So when the New Orleans Saints coach started to hear the latest version of it Thursday, he cut off the reporter and cut to the chase:

"Look, it's the hot topic. Philosophically, when [all of the Saints' running] backs are healthy, 'Is he gonna go back to rotating all three runners or is he gonna keep giving Mark the ball?' I get it," Payton said -- though he wasn't as direct when it came to revealing his own hand.

"Look, each week we'll come up with the best plan. Obviously we pay close attention to what Mark's doing right now. And he's doing real well," Payton said of Ingram, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games since fellow backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson went down with injuries. "Shoot, a year ago there were a ton of people crying for [Ingram's] head -- a handful of you here [in the media]. So I think this, obviously it's good to see him playing well and healthy. He's been real important in light of some of the injuries we've had. And I think that's something that is real encouraging.

"We notice and pay attention to all that stuff. We're gonna make sure we try to do the best thing that helps us win that week."

Payton doesn't have to stress out too much over the answer. For one thing, Thomas (shoulder/rib) and Robinson (arm) aren't ready to come back yet. For another, this is the classic, textbook example of the clich├ęd "good problem to have."

The main reason that Payton has always used a timeshare rotation at running back is because his Saints teams have always been loaded with talent at the position -- from Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush to Bush, Thomas and Mike Bell to Thomas, Ingram, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory to now.

But Payton doesn't just go with a timeshare as a rule -- which is why Ingram has carried the ball 24, 30 and 27 times over the past three games instead of Payton forcing guys like Travaris Cadet and Edwin Baker into the mix.

"I've said this before, it's important to have numbers at that position," Payton said. "And this current time frame that we are in is a good case in point for that."

At the same time, Payton's eyes have clearly been opened to how well Ingram is running. Payton (who once coached Marshall Faulk in college, among other greats along the way) has never completely dismissed the notion that backs can get into a better rhythm with more carries and more steady playing time.

It's impossible to think Payton's philosophy hasn't been altered in any way by what he's seen from the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round draft choice.

When asked if he feels like Ingram is performing like a top-tier back in the NFL right now, Payton said, "Yeah, shoot, he's playing well. So how to qualify that, I mean, I love the way he's playing. He's running hard. Absolutely. He's physical. He's been durable. ...

"He's prepared for this opportunity. He's doing a good job with it."

As for Ingram, he has been about as graceful off the field as he has been on it -- toeing the line between admitting that he loves the opportunity to get this many carries and get into that rhythm, while still not demanding anything permanent.

Ingram's career was mostly waylaid by injuries during his first three seasons, but it was absolutely stalled by his lack of opportunities, as well -- especially when he was pigeonholed as the Saints' base-package and short-yardage runner.

But while Ingram has always shown a great deal of passion and glimpses of frustration on the field or the sideline when he's not had consistent success over the years, he's always said all the right things publicly. And teammates have always raved about his attitude and work ethic.

"I know what type of system we have. I know we have backs that are real good, and all the guys are deserving of touches," Ingram said. "So I just go into each game preparing like I'm gonna be a workhorse, preparing like I'm gonna get a lot of carries. And unfortunately, some guys went down and it just presented an opportunity for me to step up and be the best I can to help the team.

"So I've just been trying to seize the opportunity."

It's also come just in time, since Ingram is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this season -- and he has almost certainly added millions to his earning power over the past three weeks by opening eyes throughout the NFL.

But that's another area that Ingram insists he isn't dwelling on.

"Man, I just take it one day at a time," Ingram said. "I'm not really worried about my contract situation or anything like that. I'm just trying to improve every single day and prepare myself to play the best game I can possibly play every Sunday.

"If I just do that, handle my business, just keep doing what I'm doing, everything will take care of itself."