Think Saints can replace Mark Ingram in free agency? Not so fast

Fox, Bruschi like the Saints at home. (1:28)

John Fox and Tedy Bruschi explain that the Saints' running game and Michael Thomas will be key for New Orleans to reach the Super Bowl. (1:28)

NEW ORLEANS -- The Mercedes-Benz Superdome erupted when New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram busted loose for a 36-yard run early in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

Saints fans have grown to love watching "Angry Mark" -- a nickname he has earned because of his hard-charging running style and the clear emotion he displays on the field.

The fans and player seem to feed off each other in moments like those. Moments that both will miss if he doesn't return as an unrestricted free agent this offseason and Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox) winds up being his final home game in a Saints uniform.

It seems like forever ago that so many fans were critical of Ingram in his early years. His career got off to a slow start after the Saints drafted him No. 28 overall in 2011.

Because now he is damn near a local treasure -- who is fewer than 100 yards away from breaking Deuce McAllister's franchise record of 6,096 rushing yards.

"Of course it's appreciated," Ingram said. "It feels good to make your home fans excited, that they're excited about you. That's a good feeling for any player -- and coming from sometimes earlier when that was difficult. So, I appreciate it."

Ingram, for the record, hopes he will remain in New Orleans to continue his prolific partnership with second-year superstar Alvin Kamara.

And Kamara feels the same way -- even though that might prevent Kamara from becoming an every-down, 2,000-yards-from-scrimmage type of back.

"I want him to be here. I want him to be here. I'm just gonna go ahead and say he's gonna be here," said Kamara, who has developed a close personal bond with Ingram -- which is on display every time they do their post-practice interview sessions together.

"I'm not looking just to up and leave New Orleans," insisted Ingram, who turned 29 last month. "We've got a good squad. I feel like we can do this type of thing for many more years. So I'm not looking just to bail out of New Orleans.

"I was drafted here. I met my wife here, my children were born here. Very rarely does anybody get to spend their career in one place. I love New Orleans, I love this team, I love this organization. So we'll see what happens. I hope we win a Super Bowl and hopefully everything works out, but it's a business. I hope everything works out. I love it here."

Heading into this season, it seemed almost inevitable that this would be Ingram's last season in New Orleans -- mostly because Kamara had emerged as a guy who is capable of being an every-down back, and other teams might be willing to offer Ingram more money and a larger role.

Surely the Saints could find some other cheap veteran or late-round draft pick to serve as their "No. 2." Right?

Well, not so fast.

The Saints tried to do that for just four weeks to start this season, when Ingram was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. And they whiffed badly.

The Saints auditioned rookie sixth-round-drafted running back Boston Scott and veterans Jonathan Williams, Terrance West, Shane Vereen and Mike Gillislee at various times throughout the summer and September, but none of them panned out, and none of them are still with the team.

The only guy the Saints wound up trusting was Kamara, who played like a league MVP candidate for the first four weeks but carried a much heavier workload than the Saints would have liked.

"We had to be careful -- and I don't know how well we did -- but we had to be careful not to use Alvin too much," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who said what he loves about the Kamara/Ingram duo as a playcaller is how interchangeable they are in every role.

"Mark's been someone who's been extremely familiar with what we do," Payton said. "In the third down, in the nickel, in the base. There's not one thing where I'm looking at the call sheet and thinking 'aaahhh.'"

It puts further stress on opposing defenses when they can't get a read on what the offense is doing based on who is in the lineup.

Last season, Ingram and Kamara became the first running back duo in NFL history to both surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage with at least 12 touchdowns apiece.

This season, Kamara has been more of a leading man (1,592 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns in 15 games, compared to Ingram's 645 rushing yards, 170 receiving yards and seven TDs in 12 games played). And the Saints do have an intriguing backup candidate in third-year running back Dwayne Washington, who ran for 108 yards on 11 carries when the Saints rested their starters in Week 17.

But Kamara quickly rejected the notion Ingram's role can be easily replaced.

"He brings a certain energy and a certain feel to our offense," Kamara said. "He's been here, he's one of those guys that's a staple in this community, in this city and on this team. When he wasn't here, he was definitely missed. It was kind of like a void. Just kind of like that presence that you know that something's missing, but you don't know quite what it is."

As an added bonus, Ingram and Kamara help keep each other fresh, which is why Ingram insists he doesn't really have the same amount of wear on his tires as the typical 29-year-old running back.

"I mean, I want to be out there all the time, I want to be out there every snap," Ingram said recently. "But at the same time, it's like my body is healthy, my body feels good. I'm in the eighth year of my career, and I feel like my best football's still ahead of me."

Ingram's slow start to kick off his career had to do with a variety of factors. He was stuck in a minor base-down and short-yardage role in a crowded backfield that also included Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory. And he missed a total of 18 games in his first five seasons because of toe, hand and shoulder injuries.

But Ingram's confidence never wavered.

The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama said in the summer of 2014 that "the sky's the limit. I want to be the best back to ever play the freakin' game of football."

At the time, it seemed like a bit of an outlandish goal. But since then, Ingram has gone to two Pro Bowls and set the Saints' franchise record with 50 rushing touchdowns.

Payton and several players have lauded Ingram for years for his terrific attitude, even during the down years -- even when he expressed some visible frustration on the sidelines when he didn't get the workload he wanted. And off the field, he has been described as the team's "heart and soul."

Now he has a chance to be the heart and soul of a Super Bowl team.

"It's just staying persistent, even though everything isn't always good, or you're not having as much success. I just kept pushing, just kept grinding, just kept believing in myself," said Ingram, who said the support and encouragement he always received inside the Saints organization will factor into his free-agency choice as well.

"I just think of all those people who have helped me when people have counted me out, and a lot of those people are in this equipment room or in the training room, people that always encouraged me and believed in me, along with my family and friends," Ingram said. "It's a lot of people in this building who have helped me get to this point."