Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead didn’t hesitate this past spring when head coach John Harbaugh asked him about running back Mark Ingram.
The Ravens were doing their due diligence on Ingram, a two-time Pro Bowl pick who was about to become a free agent after eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Snead, who played with the Saints for three years, knew Ingram well and knew the Ravens’ vision for their Lamar Jackson-led offense.
“I told [Harbaugh], ‘He’s the missing piece,'” Snead said. “This dude, not only as a football player but as a leader and as a guy that you want in your locker room, that’s the piece that brings everything together.”
“I feel like once we signed Mark,” Snead continued, “we went to that next level.”
Indeed, Ingram has proved to be the perfect complement to Jackson, a linchpin in a Ravens rushing attack that has no equal in today’s NFL. Through the first 14 games this season, the Ravens were averaging more than 200 rushing yards, a feat that has never been accomplished during a full season since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
At the center is the dynamic Jackson and the workhorse Ingram, whose signing by the Ravens for three years and $15 million has proved to be one of the most significant moves of the NFL offseason. In Ingram, the Ravens not only got a bona fide No. 1 back, but a locker room leader looking for a fresh start after a disenchanting finish to his tenure in New Orleans.
“A Great Match”
With Jackson entering his first full season as the starting quarterback and Greg Roman elevated to offensive coordinator this past spring, it was clear the Ravens were going to anchor their offense with the running game. In Roman’s previous stops as offensive coordinator in San Francisco and Buffalo, his teams had consistently finished among the league’s best in rushing.
Coming off the 2018 season in which undrafted rookie Gus Edwards had emerged to lead the team in rushing, the Ravens knew they needed at least one more power back. They quickly focused on Ingram after the Saints signed free agent Latavius Murray, essentially signaling the end for Ingram with the Saints.
Safety Tony Jefferson, who has been an aggressive recruiter with free agents throughout his tenure in Baltimore, got in touch with Ingram. So did Snead.
“They called me and were like, ‘We gotta have you here, man,'” Ingram recalled.
“I just really wanted to see my value among the league,” Ingram continued. “When the Saints made their move, the Ravens were all in on me. … They wanted me, and I wanted to be here. It ended up being a great match.”
Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama, was New Orleans’ first-round draft pick in 2011 and was a workhorse for the Saints for several years, amassing more than 200 carries three times in four years from 2014 to 2017.
In 2017, rookie Alvin Kamara burst onto the scene, and the Saints rode their “Boom and Zoom” running back duo — the 210-pound Ingram being the boom — to the NFC South title. Ingram enjoyed a Pro Bowl season and set career highs in rushing (1,124 yards), receiving (416 yards) and touchdowns (12).
But before the 2018 season, Ingram was hit with a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s policy on performing-enhancing drugs, a violation he disputed and appealed unsuccessfully. He sat out the first month of the season, and by the time he returned, Kamara had become the clear-cut No. 1 back in New Orleans. Ingram finished the season with 138 carries for 645 yards, and by March he was looking for a new team.
The Saints’ loss quickly became the Ravens’ gain.
At Home Right Away
After a bitter end to his tenure in New Orleans — his last game there was the NFC championship overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams after officials failed to call a blatant pass interference penalty on the Rams — Ingram quickly felt at home in Baltimore.
His energy was infectious, whether greeting tight end Mark Andrews with a leaping chest bump after a training camp touchdown, mentoring younger backs such as Edwards and rookie Justice Hill or chatting up players on the bench during a game.
“I’ve been seeing it for three or four years in New Orleans,” Snead said. “This guy hasn’t changed at all. That’s the type of person he is.”
Harbaugh acknowledged he didn’t really know Ingram when the free-agency pursuit began, but one person who did was former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who like Ingram had attended the University of Alabama. Newsome has always had a soft spot for Crimson Tide players.
“Ozzie had a great feel for Mark as a leader and a person,” Harbaugh said.
As for Ingram’s locker room leadership, Harbaugh said, “You have to see it to believe it. He’s just off the charts that way.”
As the wins piled up this year and Jackson’s Most Valuable Player candidacy gathered steam, Ingram would occasionally turn toward the fans near the bench and lead an “MVP! MVP!” chant while pointing to Jackson.
On the sideline, in the film room, in the locker room, Ingram is in his element, winning and having fun doing it. He chuckled as he recalled sending rookies Patrick Mekari, Justice Hill and Trace McSorley to a nearby grocery store to get Thanksgiving turkeys for him. They had never actually been ordered, and a local comedian posing as a store employee working the meat counter was in on the rookie prank, too.
“Yeah, he’s a jokester,” Hill said with a smile. “I was hot at the moment, but it’s all good.”
On the field, Ingram’s results were immediate and have been instrumental to the Ravens’ success. Ingram ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening rout of the Miami Dolphins, and he matched a career high with three touchdowns in a loss at Kansas City.
Ingram is likely to finish with a career best in touchdowns and to surpass 1,000 rushing yards for the third time in four seasons. The Ravens have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2014 and could have two this year with Ingram and Jackson. That would be a franchise first.
Ingram is signed through 2021, so he, Jackson, Andrews and rookie receiver Marquise Brown form an impressive skill-position nucleus for the next couple of years at least.
Ingram turns 30 this month, an age when production for running backs often drops sharply. And Ingram has piled up more than 1,400 career carries, the fourth-most among active players. So there is a lot of wear on the tires, but Ingram appears energized by his move to Baltimore and by his place in what the Ravens are building on offense.
“We said that we wanted to change the game,” Ingram said. “We said that we wanted to be explosive. We said that we wanted to have a great offense. … We’re on schedule with it.
“When I signed here,” he added, “I wanted to be part of something special, and I think we have a special team here.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Originally published Dec. 18, 2019