METAIRIE, La. -- Thirty-two years before the New Orleans Saints' dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara came along and broke their NFL record, Cleveland Browns running backs Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack set the standard for backfield time-shares in more ways than one.
The game was different in 1985. Back then, when Byner and Mack weren’t playing tailback, they would often take turns playing fullback for one another.
And they were so unselfish that Byner said they would sometimes even switch roles themselves in the huddle.
“I mean, we had friendly discussions at dinner about who was gonna do better on this run or this particular day, so we had a friendly competition,” Byner recalled. “But one of the things that came up with Kevin and I was we both recognized when the other guy was having a special day. And if a play was called for either he or I to run the ball and the other guy had that day going, we’d say, ‘Hey, you take it. And I’ll block for you.’”
Byner was an every-down back, so Mack would typically leave the field on third downs. It wasn’t until years later, Byner said, that Mack told him coach Marty Schottenheimer would sometimes scream, “What are you all doing?!” when Mack came off the field after one of those switches had taken place.
But Byner said the coaches “never did complain, because I guess they trusted what we felt and what we were doing.”
New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, who was the “Lightning” to Ron Dayne's “Thunder” in the early 2000s, and Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, who said the arrival of Maurice Jones-Drew late in his career “gave me a spark,” both shared similar stories of their famous duos.
The consistent theme with all of them -- Ingram and Kamara included -- is that they embraced their time-shares, putting team goals ahead of personal achievements.
Ingram and Kamara will perhaps be remembered more for the joint interviews they do together after every game than the fact they became the first tandem ever to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season (Byner and Mack were the only ones to surpass 1,400 yards).
Ingram and Kamara also became the first pair of running back teammates selected to the Pro Bowl together in at least 42 years.
When told of Byner’s recollection, Ingram said, “I wouldn’t mind blocking for AK, and I know he wouldn’t mind doing the same for me. It especially would make it difficult for defenses.”
But that doesn’t mean their individual goals have fallen by the wayside.
When ESPN asked Ingram this week whether he could pinpoint when he truly started to embrace the idea of splitting touches with his rookie teammate, he said, “I’ve never really embraced it. Ever.”
“I always want the ball. I always want to carry the ball over and over again. But just what he’s been able to do, you gotta give him the ball,” the seven-year veteran conceded. “And just how we’ve been feeding off each other, how we’ve been able to work together to help our team win -- that’s what I’m all about.”
Plus, Ingram said, “When you have someone chomping at your heels like that, you can’t help but be on top of your game every single day.”
‘Thunder and Lightning’
Barber and Dayne weren’t the most prolific pairing in NFL history. But they had the best nickname (with all due respect to Ingram and Kamara’s “Boom and Zoom” moniker.)
Not only were the burly Dayne and elusive Barber the physical embodiment of thunder and lightning, but in their first game together against the Arizona Cardinals in 2000, there was actually a weather delay of nearly 30 minutes because of thunder and lightning as they ran for a combined 222 yards and three touchdowns.
Also, they quite literally blazed a trail for what Ingram and Kamara are doing today, because their duo hit the field that season under first-time offensive coordinator Sean Payton.
“It was really just a personnel thing. He wanted Ron in, he called ‘Thunder 21’ personnel. He wanted me in, it was ‘Lightning 21,’” said Barber, who was actually a seldom-used runner/receiver/kick returner for three years before he finally started playing a major role in the offense after the Giants drafted Dayne with the 11th overall pick.
“Remember, he was a Heisman Trophy winner. Ron Dayne was a stud coming to New York. And here I was my fourth year in, just kind of this, ‘All right, he’s just a guy on the team. He returns kicks, catches a lot of passes,’” Barber said. “So when Sean changed our offense, it put a lot more emphasis on me doing some things out of the backfield. ... But because we were close friends, it didn’t feel contentious. And it ultimately helped us push toward a Super Bowl.
“And because Sean explains the bigger picture so well, you’re not caught worrying about, ‘Where are my stats gonna be?’ You get caught in thinking, ‘Look how special we’re going to be together.’”
Payton -- who also coached one of the greatest dual threats in NFL history, Marshall Faulk, at San Diego State -- has only continued to innovate in the way he uses running backs during his 12 years as the Saints’ head coach.
Barber said back in 2000, he and Dayne were rarely on the field together because it was so unusual to spread a running back out wide like a receiver. This season, Kamara has caught three passes more than 30 yards downfield, the only running back to ever do that since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking downfield throws in 2006.
But Payton was equally wise not to pigeonhole Kamara as “just a pass-catcher.” Kamara led the NFL with 6.1 yards per carry this season -- and his 7.7 yards per offensive touch are the most in NFL history of any player with at least 200 touches in a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
“Here’s the thing I see all the time in the draft. ‘Oh this kid is 5-10 and 205 pounds, but he’s not big enough to carry a load,’” Barber said. “And I’m like, ‘Wait a second, that was me. I had 300-and-some touches a year. What do you mean he can’t carry a load?’
“It’s all about how you give those players touches. Alvin Kamara, because he can run to the edges and catch balls out of the backfield, he forces defenses to expand a little bit. So if you do run him between the tackles, those cutback lanes are so available.”
Barber got an insider tip on Kamara during the preseason. When he reached out to Payton to be a guest on his “Tiki and Tierney” radio show for CBS, Payton said sure. Then he quickly texted Barber back, “By the way, have you seen Kamara?”
“So I went back and watched some of his tape from Tennessee and the preseason and was blown away,” Barber said. “So interestingly, I picked him up on my fantasy teams.”
‘Dang, I gotta do something’
Another thing that Byner, Barber and Taylor all agreed on was that Ingram and Kamara are rare because they are both so versatile as runners, pass-catchers and goal-line backs.
“And Payton does a really great job of opening up the offense, along with Drew Brees, and providing opportunities for those guys. You can’t get a read on them,” Taylor said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, this guy’s good at this. We’re gonna run this defensive set or have this personnel come in when this guy’s in.’
"So I went back and watched some of his tape from Tennessee and the preseason and was blown away. So interestingly, I picked him up on my fantasy teams." Tiki Barber on Alvin Kamara
“Really, if you were to create like a -- what is it, an Ultron or a Voltron super [duo] -- you’d pick those two over any duo in the NFL.”
Taylor said it wasn’t exactly the same when the Jaguars drafted Jones-Drew in 2006 and they each gained more than 1,375 yards from scrimmage, because Taylor wasn’t quite as much of a pass-catcher. But he said, “They remind me a whole lot of myself and Maurice.”
“Maurice was a young guy that came in, and he gave me a spark,” said Taylor, who was in his ninth season when Jones-Drew was a rookie. “Mark has to understand that it’s a blessing in disguise. For me, I was able to do more with less. It’s funny how it worked. I was healthy, I was available each game. And that doesn’t mean you’re not gonna get injured. But the invigoration that I felt, the sense of motivation that I felt, it was some inner competition.”
That’s the same kind of relationship Ingram and Kamara have both described all season long. And that inner competition is bringing the best out in them.
When Ingram broke off a 72-yard run against the Carolina Panthers last month, he said afterward, “I’m trying to get my best ‘Alvin Kamara’ on.”
“I think we were going tit-for-tat in that one,” Kamara said of that Panthers game, in which he later scored on a 20-yard run. “He broke that run, and I was like, ‘Dang, I gotta do something.’”
Kamara said when they pass each other coming on and off the field, they’re always making comments like, “Man that was a good run” or, “Go get the first down” or, “It’s your turn now.”
“We both know it’s that competitive nature,” Kamara said. “Once I see him make a play, it’s like, ‘Shoot, now I’m about to go make a play.’”