Darren Sproles didn't have a bad year in 2012, he just didn't have a Sproles year.
But Monday night was the quintessential Sproles game, complete with the kind of all-purpose mayhem infliction that Sproles has visited on opponents for years. In New Orleans' 38-17 victory over Miami in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he had seven receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown, four carries for 28 yards and a touchdown, three punt returns for 44 yards and two kickoff returns for 36 yards.
With those 222 yards, and his production from the previous three games this season, he showed again that last year was the outlier, the abnormality, the which-one-of-these-does-not-belong-here season.
"Last year I kind of missed a little training camp, and that threw off my timing a little bit," Sproles said. "But this year, I got through the whole training camp, so that kept me up to speed.
"(But) my main focus is to win. As long as we're winning, that's all I care about."
He should be pretty happy these days, because the Saints (4-0) are one of five remaining undefeated NFL teams. New Orleans next will play Chicago (3-1) on Sunday, on the road at Soldier Field.
And the Saints again will be counting on Sproles to do those things that he does to loosen a defense, exploit it or wreck the plans of a coverage unit.
"You just have to know when they're playing you man-to-man, and when they're trying to bracket you," Sproles said matter-of-factly.
He did some of those things last season, too. It bears repeating that Sproles' 2012 season totally was acceptable by industry standards. He had 1,577 all-purpose yards in 13 games, and led NFL running backs with 75 receptions.
But when the production didn't align with his previous four seasons, it was noticeable. He piled up an NFL-record 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011, following a season with 2,210 in '10, preceded by 2,323 in '09 and beginning with 2,297 in 2008.
This season he's back on his pace, with 554 all-purpose yards through the first four games, second in the NFL. And entering Sunday's game New Orleans likely will need him and his teammates to be at their best against the opportunistic Bears.
!(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/Darren-Sproles-vs-Miami-Dolphins/81c879e9-8a96-472d-abca-d4ba054782ce "Darren Sprols")"He's very important because he can do so many things," said quarterback Drew Brees, who was Sproles' teammate with the Chargers in 2005, and who helped recruit the 5-foot-6, 190-pound running back to New Orleans when Sproles became a free agent in 2011.
"He's a big matchup problem," Brees said. "There's not many defensive guys that you would walk up to and say, 'Hey, do you want to cover Darren Sproles one-on-one in the open field?' I don't think many would want to do that.
"His ability to make plays out of the backfield is special, but he can do everything from the backfield as well. He can run inside, run outside, he can pick up pass protection, he's very smart, aware – pound for pound, one of the best football players I've ever played with."
That compliment is significant to Sproles.
"It means a lot coming from Drew because he's played with a lot of great ones," he said. "(Brees has) played with L.T. former (Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson), he played with (Chargers tight end Antonio) Gates, he plays with (Saints tight end) Jimmy (Graham). So that means a lot."
But it won't be the last compliment he hears, from Brees or his Saints teammates. Sproles, whose intelligence frequently has been lauded by Coach Sean Payton, continues to play at a high level.
Entering this season, his 12,533 all-purpose yards were tops in the NFL – by 1,201 yards – since 2007.
"I love his work ethic, I love his practice habits, I love his preparation, his mind-set – everything about him," Brees said. "He's a true pro."