METAIRIE, La. — Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are getting along famously — at least by appearances.
They stand side-by-side in the locker room for joint postgame interviews, celebrating one another’s successes. And they stood together on the sideline — as fans — at the Sugar Bowl earlier this week.
“I know there’s definitely egos” in pro sports, Kamara said this week as the Saints prepared to open the playoffs Sunday against Carolina. “I think people questioned it a lot, like, ‘Are they really that close? They seem close, but are they really that close?’ But it’s really one of those things where we’re actually close and we care about each other and we care about more than just the football player part of it. I genuinely care about the dude.”
It’s rare for one team to have two running backs capable of gaining 1,500 or more yards from scrimmage, as each did this season. In fact, that’s never happened before.
But in professional sports, contracts are based largely on production, and players at the same position are competing for opportunities to stack up yards and touchdowns. That would apply more so now to Ingram, whose contract expires after the 2018 season.
Kamara was well aware that jealousy could have eroded chemistry in New Orleans’ backfield as he — a rookie — blossomed quickly and became a focal point of the offense. After all, Ingram was a 2009 Heisman Trophy winner for an Alabama national title squad and a 2011 first-round draft choice by New Orleans who made his first Pro Bowl when Kamara was playing for a junior college in 2014.
Instead, what Kamara said he found in Ingram was a consummate teammate — and a friend who has eased his transition to life as a pro and in a new city.
“It’s not just one of those things where we’re cool in pads … where it’s like, we got a game so we’ve got to function,” Kamara said. “We’re cool, like, off the field, like, for real — like, legit.”
Their cooperation not only has been rewarded individually, but has played no small role in propelling the Saints to their first playoff appearance in four seasons.
Ingram had the best — and perhaps healthiest — season of his career. His 1,124 yards rushing, 416 yards receiving, 12 total touchdowns and 1,540 yards from scrimmage were all career highs and he was named to his second Pro Bowl.
Kamara, meanwhile, put up numbers worthy of rookie-of-the-year consideration: 728 yards and eight TDs rushing, 826 yards and five TDs receiving, and a 106-yard kickoff return for a 14th total touchdown.
Ingram said sharing the workload might have helped him not just stay healthy, but also fueled his competitive juices. Ingram’s 230 carries were at least 42 fewer than any of the four players who rushed for more yards than he did. His 4.9 yards per carry matched that of yardage leader Kareem Hunt of Kansas City. Kamara, who rushed only 120 times, averaged a league-best 6.1 yards per carry.
“Being fresh … obviously has benefits for both of us being healthy at this point in the season,” Ingram said. “We just thrive off each other. There’s no animosity. Everything’s genuine. I want him to do well. He wants me to do well.
“I want to be the best. He wants to be the best. That’s what we work for and that’s why we push each other,” Ingram added. “That’s just healthy competition. That’s the reason why we’re at where we’re at now.”
As their yards and touchdowns piled up, they always appeared eager to celebrate one another’s success, even speaking to reporters in tandem. That was refreshing to the linemen who block for them.
“It’s just a nice cohesiveness that they’ve had,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “Their success has had a direct correlation to the success of the team.”
On New Year’s Day, Ingram went to the Sugar Bowl to watch Alabama defeat Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal. Standing next to Ingram on the sidelined was Kamara, who had begun his college career at Alabama, but dropped out and later landed at Tennessee, one of Alabama’s Southeastern Conference rivals.
“Everybody just looks at me and him because we’re in the same backfield. We compete for carries and compete for touches,” Ingram said. “But at the end of the day, I just want him to do well. I just want him to be the best he can be and he wants the same for me. We’re just there for each other. That’s my dude. If he needed me outside of football, we’re brothers for life.”