Near the end of his 10th NFL offseason, Mark Ingram II was talking with Dr. Sharif Tabbah about the long year ahead. Tabbah, a South Florida-based physical therapist and trainer, joked that he was happy to finally see the Ravens running back off. Ingram’s left calf injury, which had bothered him for months, was fully healed.
“You know, it’s been a great year,” Tabbah recalled telling Ingram. “Love you, but see you in January. Get out of here.”
That was a mistake. “He said, ‘January? I’ll see you definitely not before February. We got the Super Bowl to go to,’ " Tabbah said, chuckling. “So we know where his mind is.”
The shelf life of NFL running backs is not long. According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal analysis, they lasted, on average, less than 2½ years before retiring. Only wide receivers had a higher burn rate.
Ingram’s (relatively) advanced age makes his excellence all the more extraordinary — and his offseason rehabilitation all the more important. As of Monday, the 30-year-old Ingram was the oldest running back in the NFL projected to start in Week 1. None of the 31 other first-stringers were even 29. In a young man’s game, Ingram is the top running back on the league’s most dominant rushing attack.
All of which partly explains the new face in the Ravens’ running back room. Second-round pick J.K. Dobbins is nine years younger than Ingram, almost to the day. Season after season of carries take their toll, and Gus Edwards, Justice Hill and Dobbins’ 328 combined NFL rushes represent just a fifth of Ingram’s career workload. Only four active players — Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy — have more rushing attempts than Ingram (1,523).
On an offense powered by its ground game, Dobbins is as much an insurance policy as he is a bridge to the future. Ingram is entering the second year of a three-year deal that will pay him $5.3 million in 2020 and $6.3 million in 2021, when the salary cap could drop as low as $175 million, forcing tough financial choices. He’s also coming off a Pro Bowl season (1,018 rushing yards, 10 total touchdowns) that was interrupted with a Week 16 calf injury, which lingered into the Ravens’ short-lived playoff run.
The team invested in the running back position this offseason, general manager Eric DeCosta explained in May, because running backs inevitably get hurt. Ingram wasn’t immune to injury in New Orleans: He missed five Saints games in 2013 with a toe sprain, three in 2014 with a broken hand and four in 2015 with a rotator cuff tear.
But over the next three seasons, the only games Ingram sat out were because of suspension. For his first 15 games in Baltimore, Ingram was as reliable a game-day presence as his “Big Truss” affirmations. Then he went down on a noncontact play in a Dec. 22 win over the Cleveland Browns. During an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the responsibilities of rehabilitation fell largely to him.
“Obviously, any deficiencies you had, you want to make those strengths,” Ingram said during a conference call Monday. “So rehabbing my calf, obviously, at the beginning of the year, that was my first goal, making sure I got that back to full strength, got that back to full health, making sure I was able to be explosive, making sure I was able to be functional, making sure I was able to be stable, making sure I was able to do everything that I need to do to be elite and play at a high level.”
Ingram had ended seasons with knocks and nicks before, but the calf injury was worrisome. “The calf is what’s going to propel him forward in a lot of ways,” Tabbah said in an interview Sunday. Ingram went to work, reuniting with his longtime trainer, XPE Sports’ Tony Villani, but he also soon enlisted the help of Tabbah, whom he’d met through his former Saints teammate and close friend Alvin Kamara.
Early in the offseason, around February or March, Tabbah had reached out to Ingram to ask how his calf was faring. Weeks before, Ingram had felt well enough to suit up in the Ravens’ divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, but he’d played just 28 snaps before being sidelined again. Two weeks off hadn’t been enough.
“You know what, it’s funny that you reach out,” Tabbah recalled Ingram telling him, “because this thing’s still kind of bothering me a little bit. I’d love to come in and check you out.”
The injured calf, Tabbah determined, “still needed some work.” Ingram was healthy enough to push through Tabbah’s specialized workouts at Athletix Rehab, but “things weren’t quite 100%.”
Baltimore Ravens Insider Newsletter
Want the inside scoop on the Ravens? Become a Ravens Insider and you'll have access to news, notes and analysis from The Sun.
One exercise became a benchmark for his progress. When Ingram first started training under him, Tabbah said just standing on a Bosu ball — imagine a bisected rubber exercise ball attached to a rigid platform — was difficult. His stability was compromised.
As Tabbah addressed Ingram’s body imbalances, focusing especially on the calf, he ramped up the difficulty of his Bosu-ball exercises. Ingram started performing back lunges atop the ball. Then lunges featuring a 10-pound medicine ball slam. Then Tabbah added a rebounder trampoline, and medicine ball catches became part of the circuit. By late July, Ingram looked as if he could’ve done it while reciting all 50 states.
“You’re combining multiple planes of movement, so that kind of simulates any type of functional activity like game play, and we’re mixing in the power exercise,” Tabbah said. “It’s multiple planes, plus this unstable surface, so he has to be able to create stability. ... The core control and the ankle stability and the hip stability it requires is through the roof. That was super impressive to see him get back to that level.”
Ingram’s health has been at “100%” for the past couple of months, according to Tabbah, who said Ingram told him before leaving for camp that he feels “better than ever.” Ravens head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders hasn’t worked out with Ingram yet, but on Monday he called him a “pro” who knows how to prepare for the season ahead.
Ingram and the Ravens hope it’s a long and productive one. Super Bowl LV is scheduled for Feb. 7. He’ll be 31 by then.