The Saints reached a point long ago when they could no longer afford another break or blow.
Things have long felt somewhat devastated. Last year’s summer of the Saints quickly led to the fall of the Saints. And New Orleans has since spent and entire year and the first 12 games of the season trying to pick itself up, only to trip time and again.
The latest hit came Wednesday when the Saints ended Mark Ingram’s season by placing him on injured reserve reportedly with a shoulder injury. It’s a major loss for New Orleans, even if the hopes of making the playoffs have all but evaporated.
“Obviously he has been tremendous and been extremely reliable in all phases of the offense, obviously running the football and protection and catching the ball out of the backfield,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I really feel like over the last two years, especially, he has kind of come into his own. I would consider him one of the top backs in the league, all-purpose, can do everything and just a great guy to be around and great locker room guy.”
Ingram has been battling the injury for several weeks, and was limited in practices on Nov. 25 and 26. He appeared on last week’s injury report and was listed as probable before playing in Sunday’s 41-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Though there was little suggesting how serious the injury was, Ingram played 55 of 64 snaps during Sunday’s game and was on the field for the final offensive play of the game. He was targeted on a screen pass with 24 seconds remaining in the game, and his final run resulted in a 9-yard touchdown.
There’s an argument to be made that Ingram made himself into the most indispensable player on the roster outside of Brees. He leads the team with 166 carries for 769 yards with six rushing touchdowns. He’s also caught 50 passes for 405 yards.
With Ingram out of action, C.J. Spiller and Tim Hightower will likely see an uptick in carries and targets. Fullback Austin Johnson, who was released in November and signed to the practice squad, was added to the 53-man roster to take Ingram’s place.
It seems likely the team will use more of a rotation at running back, as opposed to using a featured back. Spiller will likely assume some of Ingram’s responsibility in the passing game, while Hightower should carry the ball more often on early downs.
Hightower, who has 12 carries for 48 yards, said he’s excited to be in an opportunity to receive more carries, but understands that this opportunity, and the one that brought him back to the team after Khiry Robinson suffered a season-ending leg injury, came at the expense of others.
“I’m not too far removed from the emotional side of this game,” Hightower, who last played a game in 2011 before this season because of a knee injury. “It was a dogfight for me to get back in here, it really was. And not just myself, I’m talking other guys who have been out for a tremendous amount of time.
“You put your heart, your soul, your family’s support — a lot of things go in it. You’re excited, because you’ve worked hard and you want an opportunity. ... I try not to look at, I try not to focus on how this opportunity came. I just make the most of the opportunity that’s come my way.”
Spiller, who has struggled to find opportunities in New Orleans after signing a lucrative contract with the team this offseason, was careful with his words when asked about potentially playing an increased role. He said only that he was preparing for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay and is willing to do whatever the team needs from him.
“I’m just preparing the best I can to make sure that whenever I am out there, I can perform at the best level,” Spiller said. “I never get into how many times I touch it. It’s just all about, ‘How can we be successful as an offense going up against a good defense?’ ”
But even if Spiller has been unwilling to broach the topic, his lack of touches has been a point of confusion. He’s only had 31 carries for 108 yards, and caught 29 passes for 216 yards.
Asked Wednesday if he’s still feeling the effects from summer knee surgery, or if he’s lacking some speed, he said neither thing is true and that he feels as though he’s still plenty fast enough and that his knee is fine.
“Yeah, I think I have the speed, I think you can probably look at the Dallas game,” Spiller said. “I have the cutting ability, you can probably go to the Giants game. So I feel great. But I’m always trying to get faster.”
The Saints will need him to put all that together for an extended period of time with Ingram now out of action.
Not only would that be a good thing for this season, it could help Spiller finally find a role in this offense moving forward.