The New Orleans Saints started off the season with a running back duo that looked like it could have been historic: Mark Ingram, the former Heisman Trophy winner who had improved from a slow career start to average over 1,200 total yards and eight touchdowns per season over the past three years, and … Adrian Peterson.
The last time Peterson played a full season, he led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and was a first team All-Pro. At 32 years old and coming off of a lost season, Peterson probably wasn't going to be dominant, but he struggled so much that the Saints traded him to the Cardinals after four games. When Peterson rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns in his first start with Arizona, it seemed that New Orleans maybe made a mistake.
But the departure of Peterson was instead what sparked the Saints to have the best season by a running back duo in NFL history.
After four weeks, New Orleans ranked 22nd in rushing yards and had one touchdown on the ground. Since then, the Saints rank first in rushing yards, touchdowns and yards per carry. Rookie third-round pick Alvin Kamara had 15 carries 83 yards in the first quarter of the season. After a bye week, Kamara had 10 carries for 75 yards in a 52-38 win over the Lions in Week 6. Ingram had 114 yards and two touchdowns in that same game. Since the Saints traded Peterson, Kamara has averaged 6.2 yards per carry (he leads the NFL in that category) and has caught 55 passes for 595 yards; Kamara's full season totals include 1,426 total yards, 12 touchdowns and only one fumble.
With another 74 yards, Kamara will become the 19th rookie in history with at least 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. But not many of those 18 others had to do so when the team had another running back who was a Pro Bowler and MVP candidate.
Playing alongside Kamara, Ingram has made a strong case to be named first team All-Pro. (If Ingram does get that honor, his contract will void and he'll become a free agent in 2018.) He's rushed for 1,089 yards and 12 touchdowns with an average of five yards per carry, and he has 54 catches for 397 more yards. Only Todd Gurley has more touchdowns. Only Kamara, Dion Lewis and Cam Newton average more yards per carry among qualified players. Ingram may not have an MVP case better than Gurley's, but the fact that he's even in the conversation while a teammate at the same position is up for Offensive Rookie of the Year is special.
The Saints have used this duo to change the pace and style of their typical Brees-led offense to win 11 of 13 games following an 0-2 start. They rank first in rushing touchdowns and second in yards per carry, and Brees leads the NFL in completion percentage (71.9) and yards per attempt (8.1). Consider that, after all he's done in his career, Brees has never led the league in yards per attempt, and even though he's averaging more than 50 yards fewer per game than he did a year ago, he is close to posting his first 12-win season since 2011.
So much of that is due to New Orleans having the first running back duo in NFL history in which each player had at least 1,300 total yards and 10 touchdowns. And Ingram and Kamara accomplished that with two games left to play.
They are also the first running back duo to make the Pro Bowl together since 1975. That was when Jim Otis and Terry Metcalf both made the Pro Bowl for the St. Louis Cardinals, but their totals were nothing compared to Ingram and Kamara. Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott also formed a notable backfield duo, with each making the Pro Bowl in 1997 and 2000, though Alstott was technically a fullback. Ingram and Kamara stand as a better running back duo than almost any other you'll find -- and they didn't need the Hall of Famer Peterson to help them get there. In fact, they needed him to step away.
Historically, there are some other same-position duos to propel their teams to victories and even change the way the game is played. (Don't be surprised when teams search for their "Kamara" next year.) There may not be a running back duo quite like the one the Saints have now, but there have definitely been other historic pairs during the Super Bowl era.
Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, 49ers, 1996-2000
Of all the mind-blowing facts you'll hear about the NFL, somewhere near the top should be that the receivers ranked No. 1 and 2 in career yards were teammates for five years. They spent three of those seasons with Steve Young and two with Jeff Garcia, with Owens really asserting himself as the new top option in 2000 with his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods. Rice then went across the Bay after 16 years in San Francisco to join the Raiders, who already had Tim Brown, the seventh all-time leading receiver.
Throughout his long career, Rice paired notably with Dwight Clark, John Taylor, J.J. Stokes, Owens, Brown and Jerry Porter.
Randy Moss and Cris Carter, Vikings, 1998-2001
For 1998-2000, you'd be hard-pressed to decide between the duos of Rice and Owens and Moss and Carter, the latter of which is ranked fourth and 13th in all-time yards, respectively. Moss and Carter combined for 29 touchdowns to help Randall Cunningham nearly win MVP in 1998 as the Vikings went 15-1. The next year, they combined for 24 more touchdowns despite having Jeff George as the QB for 10 starts. With Daunte Culpepper in 2000, Moss and Carter added another 24 touchdowns, their third straight season of both having at least 1,000 yards, and went to the NFC championship game.
Carter had four other years as a top duo with Jake Reed (four straight 1,000-yard seasons in Minnesota), and Moss combined for 31 touchdowns with Wes Welker in 2007 for the Patriots.
Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, Steelers, 1974-82
They were born about four months apart, drafted by Pittsburgh three rounds apart (Swann 21st overall, Stallworth 82nd) and inducted into the Hall of Fame one year apart. Their stats aren't mind-blowing by today's standards, but they definitely belong as a duo with four Super Bowl championships.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Patriots, 2010-12
The only season in which they both thrived was 2011, when Hernandez had 910 yards and seven touchdowns while Gronkowski had 1,327 and 17. The unbelievable part is that Welker himself got 173 targets, 122 receptions and 1,569 yards. No team has successfully replicated a two-tight end set like this one. Many have tried, including the Patriots.
Brian Waters and Will Shields, Chiefs, 2000-06
Waters went from undrafted to making six Pro Bowls and becoming the only offensive lineman in AFC history to win an Offensive Player of the Week award -- he took it home in October of 2004 when the Chiefs rushed for 271 yards and allowed zero sacks in a blowout victory. Shields certainly deserves from credit for that too; he made 12 Pro Bowls and is in the Hall of Fame, pairing with Waters for seven of the best seasons of a guard duo in NFL history. Of course, Hall of Famer Willie Roaf can't be forgotten, and he was the left tackle in Kansas City from 2002-05. That line opened the door for Priest Holmes score 65 touchdowns in a three-year period, followed by a 21-touchdown season from Larry Johnson.
Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, Ravens, 2012-15
You could argue that these were the two best guards in the NFL last season after Osemele left for a record contract in Oakland and made first-team All-Pro, but they played alongside each other for four years before that. Yanda is a potential Hall of Famer at guard, and the duo helped give the Ravens their second Super Bowl championship in 2012, when Osemele was a rookie at right tackle.
Steve Young and Joe Montana, 49ers, 1987-92
As much as a quarterback duo can ever compete "together," Montana and Young shared the ball most often in 1989. That was the year in which Young had to make three starts, leading San Francisco to a 3-0 record in those games while posting a passer rating of 120.8 and accounting for 10 total touchdowns en route the Niners making the postseason and winning the Super Bowl.
A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars, 2017
We'll see if they stand the test of time, but Bouye and Ramsey are definitely the best cornerback tandem this season and one of the greatest in recent history. Both made the Pro Bowl and both will get All-Pro consideration. They're young and under contract together for at least three more seasons.
Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, Browns, 1984989
Back when Cleveland was a perennial playoff contender, Minnifield and Dixon helped the Browns reach the postseason five years in a row. From 1986-88, they became the first cornerback pair to both reach the Pro Bowl in three straight seasons. The Browns reached the AFC championship game three times with Minnifield and Dixon, but they have won only one playoff game since Dixon retired after the '89 season.
Dick LeBeau and "Night Train" Lane, Lions, 1960-65
Detroit drafted LeBeau in 1959, then traded for Lane -- who set a record as a rookie in 1952 with 14 interceptions -- in 1960. Lane was a Pro Bowl corner in 1960, '61 and '62, while LeBeau made it in 1964, 1965 and 1966. After Lane retired in '66, the Lions drafted another corner, Lem Barney, who had 10 interceptions as a rookie in 1967 and went on to a Hall of Fame career.
Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, Seahawks, 2010-present
Thomas was the premier pick in 2010, going 14th overall under new head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, but in the fifth round the Seahawks found another special safety in Chancellor. Thomas is a near-certain Hall of Famer at free safety, while Chancellor has earned four Pro Bowl trips and was arguably Seattle's best player in the 2013 postseason en route to the franchise's only championship. All the while, the Seahawks have also featured a Hall of Fame-level cornerback in Richard Sherman to make the core "Legion of Boom" one of the greatest trios in history.
Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, Raiders, 1983-86
Haynes was a six-time Pro Bowler for the Patriots when his contract was "awarded" to the Raiders in 1983; Haynes was in a contract dispute and was traded to the Raiders midseason, but the NFL disallowed it because it was after the trade deadline. To make things right, the Raiders had to send a first- and second-round pick to New England, and finally they got their man to pair with Hayes, a Pro Bowl corner in his own right. The Raiders gave up 33 points in three playoff games to win the Super Bowl. Hayes had a pick-six in the divisional round and another one in the AFC championship, while Haynes had an interception in the Super Bowl win over Washington. "I've always had my worst games against Mike Haynes," said Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent at the time.
Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones, Rams, 1962-71
Olsen was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first 14 seasons, and he was arguably the greatest defensive lineman in NFL history. Jones was a Pro Bowler next to him in seven of those years, with five All-Pro nods. Things started as bad as 1-12-1 for the Rams in 1962 to being as good as 11-1-2 in 1967, but they never won a playoff game with these two Hall of Fame linemen.
Harvey Martin and Randy White, Cowboys, 1975-83
For the only time in Super Bowl history, two players won the MVP award; reporters wanted to give the award to the entire Cowboys defense after they forced eight turnovers against the Broncos in the 27-10 win, but they were pressed to choose only two and decided that Martin and White were most responsible. White played his entire 14-year Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys, and while Martin was not as noteworthy, the Cowboys claim that he had 23 sacks during their championship '77 season, which was only 14 games long.
Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, Eagles, 1986-92
White is considered by many to be the greatest pass rusher in NFL history, winning Defensive Player of the Year in both 1987 and '98, but Simmons had plenty to brag about during his Philly career. Simmons had 15 1/2 sacks in 1989, 13 sacks in 1991 and 19 sacks in 1992. Both were named first-team All-Pro defensive ends in '91, for an Eagles team that might be the best ever to miss the postseason. (Randall Cunningham's injury having everything to do with them going 10-6 instead of challenging the dominant Washington team for the Super Bowl.)
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, 49ers, 2010-13
Another duo that features a Hall of Famer who came into the NFL with high expectations and one who overcame the odds to become at least a Hall of Greater. Willis made first team All-Pro five times after being the 11th overall pick in 2007, but the Niners' best seasons with him came after they drafted Bowman 91st overall in 2010; San Francisco went to three straight NFC championship games and one Super Bowl from 2011-13, with Bowman making first team All-Pro in 2012 and '13.
Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker, Rams, 2012-present
Another current duo that deserves some recognition, the Rams found their franchise kicker in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, then their franchise punter in undrafted free agency. Zuerlein was 38-of-40 on field goal tries this season before being placed on injured reserve with two games to go; he was going to get an opportunity to break the NFL record for field goals made in a season prior to his back injury. Meanwhile, Hekker is considered the best punter in the league today, if not eventually challenging Ray Guy as the best punter of all time. Guy was a first-team All-Pro three times, while Hekker is almost certain to get his fourth such honor this year, and he's only 27. The Rams are division champions in large part because of their immense improvements on offense and defense, but their steady performance on special teams over the past six years also deserves credit.