METAIRIE — One ball, four quality running backs: former San Diego Chargers’ standout Darren Sproles, undrafted free agents Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory and first-round draft pick Mark Ingram.
Four healthy NFL egos, one common goal: winning.
All for one and one for all seems to capture the collective spirit and mindset of the aforementioned halfbacks as the New Orleans Saints march toward their fourth postseason berth in six years under coach Sean Payton.
The Saints (7-3) tackle the slumping New York Giants (6-4) in a nationally televised game at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“What I like about this team is nobody here is selfish,’’ said Sproles, a key free-agent acquisition in early August who leads the NFL with 1,604 all-purpose yards. “We all got our roles and we all like our roles.”
As defined as those roles may be in Payton’s fertile mind, they clearly change game to game based on the defensive makeup of the opposition, which, in turn, dictates the type of offensive personnel packages the head coach calls on game day.
In other words, not only must Thomas, Sproles, Ingram and Ivory compete for touches among themselves, but also with a talented receiving corps that features tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson.
There are only so many touches to go around in the Saints’ pass-dominated offense under the direction of Super Bowl XLIV MVP Drew Brees — and the bulk of those touches generally do not go to running backs.
That is one reason why the Saints’ leading rusher has yet to eclipse the 350-yard mark through 10 the first games. In fact, the leading rusher on 28 other NFL teams has more yards than Sproles, who surprisingly leads with 348 yards, eight more than both Thomas and Ingram, and on far fewer carries.
Sproles is averaging a robust 6.8 yards on 51 carries, the highest per-carry average of any NFL running back with at least 50 attempts.
The collective effort of Sproles, Thomas and Ingram is 1,028 yards, which barely exceeds the individual output by Philadelphia Eagles’ running back LeSean McCoy, who leads the NFL with 1,019 rushing yards.
That has been the Saints’ modus operandi on the ground under Payton. Consider:
• Only once in the previous five seasons has a Saints’ running back rushed for more than 800 yards since Payton came on the scene in 2006. Deuce McAlister gained a team-high 1,057 yards that season.
e_SBlt That team-high number has decreased the past four seasons. Reggie Bush led all rushers with 581 yards in ’07. Thomas led the team in rushing in ’08 (625) and ’09 (793) and Ivory paved the way as a rookie in 2010 (716).
Based on their current pace, it might be a stretch for any of the Saints running backs to reach 700 yards rushing this season.
Sproles, Thomas and Ingram each would have to double his average per-game output over the last six games. Ivory has played sparingly this season because of injuries and has only 85 yards rushing.
Thomas, Ingram and Ivory certainly are capable of being 1,000-yard rushers. But they have checked their egos at team’s locker room door and are happy to be productive members of the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense (436.9 yards per game) and No. 2 scoring offense (31.3 points per game).
“Winning is the key,” said Ingram, the 28th pick in the April draft and winner of the 2009 Heisman Trophy while at Alabama. “In order to win championships, you have to win games. So whatever I have to do to help the team be successful, that’s what I’m willing to do to help us win. Whether I get 17 carries or six carries, I’m going to make the best of every touch.
“And, as long as we’re winning, I’m fine. Because at the end of the day, as long as we’re winning, I think everybody is happy.”
Thomas and Ivory share Ingram’s sentiment while recognizing the considerable talents of their other offensive teammates.
“When you have as many weapons on the team like we do, it’s hard to be mad,” Ivory said. “You want to use everybody in our offense. We want to play everybody. (But) it’s all about what you do when your number is called anyway. Man, having all the guys we have on offense gives us a big advantage, so why not play everybody.”
For the first time this season, all four Saints halfbacks appear to be healthy, and the possibility exists all may be active for Monday night’s game.
The flip side is one healthy running back might be deemed inactive. Ivory, who has played sparingly this season because of injuries, would be the likely candidate to sit out.
Payton said that game-time determination could be influenced by health issues at other positions.
“With this offense, you’re not going to rush for 1,500 yards,” Thomas acknowledged. “We got so many good players on this team and it works great for our offense, so I’m not complaining. As long as we’re winning and we do good things out there, hey, let’s keep doing it.”
After practicing on a limited basis all week, MLB Jonathan Vilma (knee) didn’t work Saturday and is listed as questionable for Monday night. … DE Turk McBride (ankle) did not practice either and was ruled out of the game by Payton. DE Cameron Jordan (hand) and CB Patrick Robinson (stomach) worked fully and are probable. … For the Giants, T Will Beatty (eye/back), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and DB Derrick Martin (hamstring) will not play, according to the final injury report filed by coach Tom Coughlin. … WR Mario Manningham (knee) is questionable, while T Kareem McKenzie (toe), and DEs Justin Tuck (ankle/shoulder) and Osi Umenyiora (knee) were able to work Saturday and are probable for the game. … The Saints added T Phil Trautwein to their practice squad on Thursday.