Photo courtesy Michael Herbert
New Orleans is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013 when the team finished 11-5 and reached the divisional round of the playoffs. Since that time, the team has had three straight 7-9 seasons and no playoff appearances. A 23-13 victory over the Saints' hated rival, the Atlanta Falcons, clinched a playoff spot for the club.
One major reason for the Saints' rebound is a vast improvement on defense, but another is the fact that the offense doesn't need quarterback Drew Brees to carry the bulk of the load. Rookie running back Alvin Kamara has combined with fellow running back Mark Ingram to give the Saints one of the best backfields in the NFL.
Kamara, a Norcross, Ga., native, nearly missed his chance to become an NFL star. After he garnered attention on the football field in high school, many people expected him to be the next great University of Alabama running back. However, a knee injury forced him to redshirt his first season with the Crimson Tide. Coach Nick Saban suspended him for the Sugar Bowl, and he was unable to be on the sideline against Louisiana State University for "behavior reasons." He left Alabama in January 2014 only for him to end up in more trouble in his hometown a month later when police arrested him for driving with a suspended license.
Kamara then went to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, where he was named the conference's Offensive Player of the Year. He got a second chance to play at an SEC school when the University of Tennessee offered him a scholarship, and he made the most of his opportunity.
In April, New Orleans drafted him with the 67th overall pick in the third round. The Saints have been able to use Kamara in a similar fashion to former running back Reggie Bush. The rookie is already a better runner than Bush and is nearly as elusive in the passing game.
In 15 games so far this season, Kamara has had three starts with 111 carries for 684 yards and seven touchdowns, and 75 receptions for 742 yards and five touchdowns. Comparatively, Bush played in all 16 games of his rookie season, 2006, with eight starts, 565 rushing yards with six touchdowns, and 88 catches for 742 yards and two touchdowns.
The 11-4 Saints have one final regular-season game left to play this Sunday, Dec. 31, and Kamara already has more rushing yards and has tied Bush in receiving yards.
Kamara's effectiveness was apparent early in the season. New Orleans lost its first two games, as the team tried to split carries between Ingram, Kamara and Adrian Peterson. Kamara had a coming-out party against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 24 when he scored his first NFL touchdown and ran for 37 yards on just two carries.
He recorded his first 100-yard rushing day against the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 12 with 12 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown, helping the Saints score a 47-10 win. He had his first 100-yard receiving game in a 20-26 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 26 with six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, adding 87 rushing yards and another score on five carries.
The Saints' offense struggled in its first game against the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 7 when Kamara took a blow to the head early in the game. He entered concussion protocol and was out of the game after three catches for 25 yards and one carry for two yards. New Orleans lost to the Falcons 17-20.
He returned to the lineup against the New York Jets a week later, and the Saints rolled to a 31-19 win. In the second game against the Falcons on Christmas Eve, he had a strong outing, with 90 total rushing and receiving yards. He sported red cleats in celebration of the holiday season during the Dec. 24 game and tweeted today that the NFL fined him for his footwear.
Kamara will be a good candidate for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year at the end of the season. He is already gathering plenty of honors during the regular season including NFL Rookie of the Week honors six times, with five consecutive titles from week nine to week 13. He also received the title of Ground Player of the Week in week nine and week 11. The young running back was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for November.
It isn't just Saints fans who have noticed Kamara's impact. Fans, coaches and fellow players voted him to the Pro Bowl roster as a rookie.
The Saints already have a spot in the playoffs but will still have plenty on the line in their final game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday at 3:25 p.m. on FOX. New Orleans can take the NFC South title with a win over the Buccaneers.
If the Saints win and the Rams lose, then New Orleans will take the third seed in the NFC. A win from both the Saints and Rams will leave New Orleans with the fourth seed. A loss from the Saints and a win for the Carolina Panthers will drop the Saints to the fifth seed.