METAIRIE — The way Saints running back Pierre Thomas sees it, Chris Ivory’s draft-night trade to the New York Jets was addition by subtraction.
No, not because he questioned Ivory’s attitude or potential or ability to be a good teammate. He said he reached out right before Ivory left New Orleans to let him know he could call for advice any time.
Thomas simply believes it is better to have three healthy running backs than four. For the Saints, that means him, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram.
“It’s tough when you have four to have all those guys active because you still want to make room for other positions as well,” Thomas said Wednesday at teammate Ben Grubbs’ #66 Foundation celebrity softball game at Zephyr Field. “The three guys will be just perfect for us. We’re going to see a lot more touches on the ground distributed between all of us.
“It was really unbalanced last year. Nobody really had anything set in stone as to who was going to play and who was going to start.”
Ivory usually was the odd man out. Inactive for the first seven games, he grew increasingly frustrated with his position on the depth chart. When he finally played, he had a 22-yard score on a Monday night against Philadelphia and a spectacular, season-long 56-yard rushing touchdown the next Sunday against Atlanta.
That was an anomaly, though. He did not score or rush for 40 yards in any game the rest of the way as New Orleans struggled on the ground, plummeting to 25th in the NFL in rushing (98.6 average) from sixth in 2011 (132.9).
The Saints’ rushing attempts dropped off by four per game, too. Part of that issue was an effect rather than a cause of their disappointing 7-9 season — they fell behind early often and had to throw — but Thomas is convinced coach Sean Payton will insist on more balance in his return from bounty exile.
“He got a chance to see it from a fan’s standpoint and see that we weren’t running the ball too much,” Thomas said. “He’s really determined to get that ground game back on track. We want to make sure we are a good, balanced team. That’s what we are, and that’s what we are going to show everybody we can be.”
To achieve that goal, the Saints need Ingram, a first-round draft pick in 2011, to produce from start to finish. His career average per carry of 3.9 pales in comparison to Ivory’s 5.1. He has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game, a milestone Ivory, an undrafted free agent in 2010, reached twice in his rookie year and once in 2011.
But Ingram finished 2012 with the most promising stretch of his short career, rushing for 424 of his team-high 602 yards in the last eight games.
“I improved in every aspect, from pass blocking, making my reads and knowing the offense,” he said. “I plan to keep improving in all areas. From A to Z, I’m just trying to get better.”
His first injury-free offseason could help. He arrived in New Orleans with a bothersome left knee that affected his junior year at Alabama after he won the Heisman Trophy in 2009. He had minor surgeries following his rookie season to clear up a turf toe problem and issues with his right knee.
Used as a short-yardage specialist at times in his first two years while Thomas and Sproles enjoyed more versatile roles, he wants to show how well-rounded he can be.
“I’m a back that does everything,” he said. “I run it inside, I run it outside, run routes, catch the ball, pick up pass protections. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life. I come in every day and work my butt off at practice and try to hold up my end of the bargain to my teammates.”
With Payton out of the picture and the defense allowing more yards than any team in NFL history, the running backs never had a chance last year. Thomas rushed for 473 yards and one touchdown, his lowest totals in any full season (he missed 10 games in 2010 and played sparingly as a rookie).
Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards in 2011, underwent surgery on a broken hand at midseason and rushed for his lowest total (244 yards) since 2007 in San Diego.
The threesome has much bigger plans for 2013.
“Last year’s behind us, and it’s time to move on,” Thomas said. “We all have our job to do and we all have our role. There’s no selfishness in our group. We have our head coach, our leader, back. He’s pumped up and we’re pumped up.”
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