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Without Brees, the Saints Turn to a Not-So-Secret Weapon

With quarterback Drew Brees out for several weeks because of rib and lung injuries, the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl hopes rest with a jack-of-all-trades who is sometimes dismissed as a mere role player: the all-purpose running back Alvin Kamara.

Sorry, were you expecting the team’s backup quarterback, Taysom Hill? Hill, the gadget specialist and wish fulfillment figure currently filling in for Brees, is certainly critical to the Saints’ success. But Kamara has been their best offensive performer this season, by far, and he has emerged as a worthy candidate for the N.F.L. Most Valuable Player Award.

Through Week 11, Kamara ranked second in the league with 1,179 total yards from scrimmage and 12 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. His 67 receptions tied him for seventh in the N.F.L. and led all running backs. Per Pro Football Reference, Kamara leads the league with 619 yards after the catch and 14 broken tackles after receptions. Coach Sean Payton lines him up at running back, various wide receiver positions, kick returner and occasionally as a wildcat quarterback to make the most of his diverse talents.

Kamara’s production has been vital to the Saints in a season in which Brees’s skills have continued their noticeable decline and Michael Thomas has missed six games because of injuries and the alluring siren song of wide receiver misbehavior. (Thomas missed one game for “disciplinary reasons,” reportedly after an altercation with a teammate during practice.)

The Saints’ offense this season often consisted almost entirely of Brees floating soft tosses into the flats or handing off so Kamara could dodge and juke his way around defenders for significant gains. Yet despite their overreliance on one individual, the Saints are 8-2, in first place in the N.F.C. South and at the front of the conference playoff race.

Kamara isn’t exactly an unsung hero: He’s a three-time Pro Bowl selection and a perennial first-round pick in fantasy football leagues, where his combination of rushing and receiving production is highly coveted. But his contributions may be undervalued, for a variety of reasons. Kamara is a “committee back” who shares carries with Latavius Murray. He’s an all-purpose back who gets upstaged on statistical leaderboards by rushers whose production is not split into two categories, such as the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook (the current leader in scrimmage yards and touchdowns) and the Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry (last year’s rushing leader).

Kamara also lacks the folk hero origin story of Hill, the scrambling 30-year-old perma-prospect who overcame multiple collegiate injuries and worked his way up from the proverbial mailroom of the Saints’ practice squad to earn an extended audition as Brees’s long-term replacement.

Kamara played only a minor role in Hill’s starting debut, rushing 13 times for 45 yards and one touchdown (with zero receptions) in Sunday’s 24-9 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Payton surprised the Falcons by treating Hill like a real quarterback instead of building a game plan out of read options and easy tosses to Kamara. Hill surprised his skeptics by looking more like a real quarterback than a Mary Sue written into the Saints’ fan fiction to appeal to the middle-aged high school legend demographic.

Hill’s decision process in the pocket boils down to “wait for Thomas to get open and run for daylight if he doesn’t,” but there are a lot of quarterbacks around the N.F.L. who would benefit from similar clarity.

It’s one thing to use unexpected tactics to baffle the hapless Falcons, who earlier in the season mixed up the procedures for handling an onside kick and a live grenade. The Saints face the Denver Broncos’ tighter defense on Sunday, and future opponents (including the Falcons again in two weeks) will be ready to take away the Hill-to-Thomas connection. The Saints will need Kamara more than ever. Then Brees will (probably) return as the playoffs approach, and the Saints will go back to needing Kamara just as much as they always have.

No matter how irreplaceable Kamara may be to the Saints, he remains a long shot for M.V.P. consideration. The last nonquarterback to win the award was Adrian Peterson in 2012, when he rushed for 2,097 yards. The closest all-purpose performers like Kamara to win the award were LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 2,323 scrimmage yards and 31 touchdowns in 2006, and Marshall Faulk, who had 2,189 combined scrimmage yards and 26 touchdowns in 2000. Kamara is on a pace for 1,886 yards and 19.2 touchdowns: excellent, but not eye-popping enough to win an award almost exclusively reserved for quarterbacks.

Kamara’s M.V.P. case is far stronger once assumptions about the relative values of quarterbacks and running backs are set aside. He has spent most of the season assisting a fading Hall of Famer whose average throw this season traveled just 5.8 yards downfield (per N.F.L. Next Gen Stats, the second-lowest figure in the league). He’s now tasked with propping up a nondenominational Tim Tebow surrogate. He’s responsible for 31 percent of the offensive yardage for a team that swept Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is on a seven-game winning streak. And his dual rusher-receiver role makes him a more effective focal point for a modern N.F.L. offense than workhorses like Cook and Henry.

OK, even accounting for all that, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes may still be a better M.V.P. candidate in 2020. Kamara remains the most valuable player on the Saints. And if he can lead them to the Super Bowl, that’s all that will really matter.

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