Mark Ingram II delivers impromptu loud, fired-up messages while playing football, all falling in line with his strong alpha personality that drives the Texans’ locker room.
Whether it’s calling himself a “fine wine, a Pinot Noir,” on the practice field in a nod to his age or talking a little smack after trucking defensive players with his hard-nosed running style, the Texans’ veteran running back is going to be heard from.
Ingram’s intensity, personality and sense of humor are rare commodities and have helped boost the enthusiasm surrounding an underdog football team that got off to a 1-0 start with him providing 85 yards and a touchdown run on 26 carries in a 37-21 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars to start the season.
“I just love playing ball, and I love playing ball with my guys,” Ingram said. “When we’re making plays and winning, that’s always fun. That energy and that excitement just comes out when you’re playing ball, and you’re winning, and your guys are making plays, and you’re just in a dog fight and you’re just trying to make things happen. That’s just kind of the energy and personality that happens when good things are happening on Sundays.”
Busting through tackles and busting guts with laughter, Ingram has a strong presence on an overhauled roster that’s building a new identity and mentality following a 4-12 season.
Ingram plummeted on the Baltimore Ravens' depth chart last season behind J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and dealt with a high ankle sprain, rushing for just 299 yards and five touchdowns. The former Pro Bowl runner was cut in January after being inactive in the playoffs and four of the final five games of the Ravens’ regular season.
Signed to a one-year, $3 million contract that includes a $500,000 signing bonus, Ingram, 31, is determined to revitalize his career with the Texans after reuniting with coach David Culley, a former Ravens assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and receivers coach.
Healthy again, Ingram is looking to prove he still has a lot left in his body after gaining a career-low 349 yards from scrimmage last season and being cut two years after signing a three-year, $15 million contract.
And Culley is leaning on Ingram as a key figure on a revamped team.
“He’s probably one of the more vocal guys we have on this team,” Culley said. “He is not afraid to say what is on his mind. Those guys respect him. He’s been around, he’s been around some winners. He knows what its like to be a winner and be successful in this league. He also knows when adversity comes somebody has to be able to make sure those guys understand we got to be able to overcome those things.
“He’s one of those guys that you will never see down, he will never let anybody else get down. Basically, I am with him all the time telling him about continuing to do that. When we first got him, I felt like he was a reflection of what I was all about as a coach and what I want out of our players. I am glad he is here.”
During the fourth quarter of the Texans’ victory over the Jaguars, Culley went out of his way to salute Ingram’s efforts. On a video, Culley reinforced his message to Ingram: “Your presence on this football team and what you mean is very important. It ain’t just about yards, it’s about having you here.”
The relationship between Culley and Ingram formed in Baltimore remains a strong one. They’re counting on each other.
“It means a lot,” Ingram said. “He’s always been consistent with who he is, his words and his messages, and that’s just something he’s always done with me. Even in 2019, even last year in Baltimore, he’s always just encouraged me and emphasized that it was more than just the stats and stuff. Just who I was and what I bring to the table, and I appreciate that. He’s always encouraged me that way. I appreciate him and I’m thankful for him.”
“When I was having a Pro Bowl year, one of my best years as a pro in 2019, he was always encouraging, always pushing me to be better. Last year, when it wasn’t a year that I’m proud of or it didn’t go great, he was always encouraging me, saying positive things and encouraging me. Telling me to remain positive and just keep working. Ever since I’ve been here in Houston, he’s been the same. He hasn’t changed, he hasn’t switched up on me, whether it’s a Pro Bowl year or a down year.. As a man, I respect that. As a man, I appreciate that, and I just know what I’m getting from Coach. He’s going to be a guy that loves his players, that encourages his players, and I’m thankful for him.”
The Texans intend to keep running the football and Ingram is their featured back in a backfield that includes fellow former Pro Bowl selections in Phillip Lindsay and David Johnson as backups.
Ingram ran the Wildcat formation against the Jaguars, handing it off to Lindsay for a touchdown.
“Mark’s a fiery dude,” offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. “He’s brought an edge here in the offensive room that I’m not sure we’ve had for a while.”
Ingram joined a team that needed to resurrect its dormant running game. The Texans gained just 91.6 rushing yards per game to rank 31st overall in the NFL and had only 344 runs for the fewest in franchise history. Gaining 1,466 yards on the ground overall, it was the second lowest in franchise history behind the 2002 expansion Texans’ 1,347 yards.
“He’s a leader in the locker room, great dude,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “Obviously, I’ve been watching him play for a long time. Got to talk to him pretty much every day, just get to know him. Great dude, we have a lot of mutual friends. It’s an honor to play with him.”
The way that Ingram is operating isn’t something new. This is who he is and what he’s all about.
“I love Mark,” wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. “We played together for three years in New Orleans, and he has that same energy. He’s going to bring it every single day. I mean, the guy is just a dog. Playing in this league for that long and as a running back and still being able to get those yards after contact, he’s a special player. But at the same time, he brings a lot of energy to this offense and to this locker room. What you see is what you get. In the locker room, in private, he’s always hyped up.”
Ingram is a former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama who comes from a football family. His father, Mark Ingram, is a former NFL wide receiver.
“I think just my dad, my grandpa, they both played ball,” Ingram said. “And just coaches instilling in me the desire to work hard, the desire to want to be the best, the desire to do your best. I think that’s something that just burns in me, and that’s what pushes me. People can analyze and get statistics for a lot of things, but you can’t measure somebody’s heart. You can’t measure what’s in somebody’s chest. That’s just something I take pride in.”
Unlike a year ago when Ingram was dealing with a high ankle sprain, he enters this season healthy and ready to go.
In his 11thNFL season, the three-time Pro Bowl selection has 7,409 yards rushing with 63 touchdowns. He has a career average of 4.6 yards per carry.
“People say what they want, people say what they think, but it really don’t matter,” Ingram said. “I know what I’m capable of bringing to the table when I’m healthy and when I’m given opportunities. So just my desire to be the best, my desire to want to help the team, my desire to want to be a champion, my desire to put my best foot forward every single time I step foot on that field, to make my family proud, to make all those people who believe in me proud. Those are things that I take pride in, and that’s what motivates me.
"It is a job. It is a business, and you just have to learn the business and you have to learn to thrive in it. When you don’t have fun with it, if you lose the love of it, I think you get exposed. I just love playing ball, I love being with my guys, I love seeing them make plays, I love making plays, I love putting up points, I love watching the defense have turnovers, love hearing the crowd, love silencing the crowd on the road. It’s just fun. It’s a kid’s game, and I’m just thankful that the Lord has blessed me with the ability and the talent, and the ability to overcome adversity to be able to still be playing this game in my 11th season.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.