Ingram deserved breakout performance

Mark Ingram deserved that.

He earned it.

His 97-yard rushing performance in the New Orleans Saints' 26-24 playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was long overdue.

For the most part, Ingram has only run into frustration during his three-year career with the Saints – whether it's been injuries or ineffective performances. It got so bad that the home crowd booed him after a dropped pass inside the Superdome earlier this year.

But to Ingram's credit, he never seemed to get down on himself or the situation publicly.

And if he ever got frustrated, his teammates insist they've never seen it. It's something I've always noticed about Ingram -- and something I've asked players and team officials about both publicly and privately in the past.

"You hate hearing negative things about someone that you see come to work every day with the right attitude, the right work ethic. You just hate hearing the negativity," offensive tackle Zach Strief said after Saturday's game. "And to have him have some success this year, I think he's just building confidence. And I think the offense in general is gaining more confidence in him."

I'm not trying to claim that the criticism of Ingram has been unwarranted. There's no doubt that he has underachieved on the field since being drafted in the first round in 2011.

And I'll admit that I finally started to think it might never happen for Ingram after he got off to such a slow start this season when the Saints gave him an opportunity to be their featured back (17 carries for 31 yards through two games, followed by a significant toe injury).

But it's clear that Ingram -- and the Saints -- always remained confident that such a performance was possible.

I asked him Saturday night if he ever got down on the way his career was going, even just for a week or a day.

"No," he insisted. "I've always had confidence in myself. I always knew that I prepared my butt off, day in and day out, for when I do have the opportunity to show what I can do, that I'm ready for it. And people always talk -- that's gonna happen. You're gonna have doubters. You're gonna have critics. You're gonna have haters. It really doesn't matter. I just work my butt off every single day and try to prepared when the opportunity presents itself."

During Ingram's answer, a teammate in the backroom shouted, "No doubt!"

And when I asked Ingram if that support from teammates has always been a big part of his positive outlook, he said yes -- followed by multiple shouts of "No doubt!" and "Word!" from a couple of teammates.

"Man, my teammates are everything," said Ingram, who also repeatedly gave credit to the offensive line and teammates blocking down the field after Saturday's game. "Like I said from the get-go, they know about how I come to work and work my butt off every single day. And as long as they support me and know that I'm out there busting my butt to be the best I can be to help us win games, that's all that matters."

Ingram gave a similar answer about how teammates and members of the organization felt about him earlier this year – when he gave a passionate denial to a report that he might seek a trade.

Part of the problem for Ingram up to this point was that he was stuck in a crowded backfield, where he was only getting a limited number of carries. It's the same problem former Saints running back Chris Ivory faced before he had a breakout season with the New York Jets in an expanded role this year.

Being a part-time running back for a team that doesn't run the ball that often is hardly a great recipe for success.

Adding to the degree of difficulty for Ingram was the fact that when he was in the game over the past three years, it was usually in a base-running or short-yardage package with a fullback and two tight ends – where the defense was loaded up to stop the run.

Over the past two months, the Saints have been getting Ingram more touches in open space through receptions or runs out of passing formations -- first during his breakout 145-yard performance in a blowout win over the Dallas Cowboys last month, then in smaller doses throughout an impressive December.

Ingram has taken advantage. He has shown a combination of elusiveness and power to break tackles in the open field that we really haven't seen since his first preseason out of Alabama in 2011.

That was especially true on Saturday night, when Ingram was used as the Saints' featured runner in his first-ever playoff game at Philadelphia because of starter Pierre Thomas' back injury. Ingram carried the ball 18 times for 97 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 17 yards.

It has definitely been a combination of improved performance and improved opportunity for Ingram. As well as that positive outlook.

"I just know that coming into the season, I was feeling great. I was confident in my abilities," Ingram said. "Of course the injury set me back. That's gonna happen in football. You just have to respond the right way. You know, everybody falls down, but you just have to get back up.

"And my focus just coming back in was just to be the best player I can be. As simple as that. Just making the most of every opportunity. And whatever my role may be, just doing it to the best of my ability to help us win. And that's been my focus every day, just coming in and trying to get a little bit better."