There were going to be questions with Jay Ajayi from the start. Was the former Boise State running back durable enough to be an every-down back in the NFL? Would he be an able replacement for departed free agent Lamar Miller? Stuff like that.
Then Arian Foster, a former NFL rushing champion, joined the Miami Dolphins just before training camp opened in July, and everything changed. Not all at once, but steadily came the realization that there was a grown-up in the running backs room.
Adam Gase, a rookie head coach in search of the sturdiest framework he can put together in a hurry, surely noticed it.
Ajayi, believing himself ready to be a starter, believing no one could take that away from him, did not.
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And so we come to a surprisingly early trap door in the Dolphins’ supposedly settled roster as the team prepares for another tough road assignment at New England.
Ajayi could easily fall through it if he makes a wrong step now. Already he received the ultimate punishment of being left home by Gase for the season-opening game in Seattle, and not because of injury.
Already Gase has talked about this being “a new day” for Ajayi, verifying that there was something in their relationship that the coach and the pouty player need to get past, whether it had solely to do with Foster being named the starter at Seattle or because of something else.
Need any other clues that Ajayi needs to get it right, and quick, lest the assumed advantages he has over Miami’s other running backs should continue to wane, or vanish altogether?
Consider this Thursday quote from offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen, who said that going without Ajayi in last Sunday’s 12-10 loss at Seattle “really wasn’t much of a factor.”
“It probably sounds like coach talk, but whoever is up there, we’re gonna coach them up and play. Whatever happened happened, and he wasn’t there so we didn’t worry about who wasn’t there. We worried about who was there, and there were plenty enough guys to win that football game and we didn’t get it done.”
That’s the old “Next Man Up” lecture normally reserved for high school and college teams. Ajayi is a second-year pro. He shouldn’t have to hear that. He shouldn’t need to be reminded that a guy with one career touchdown and no single game with double-digit carries has not earned much of a foothold in this league.
There remains a great opportunity here, particularly with Foster, 30, coming off an Achilles injury last season with the Houston Texans. Ajayi didn’t get all the first-team carries, however, when Foster was given a practice session off for rest and maintenance Wednesday. Instead he shared time with Isaiah Pead.
No problem whatsoever this week getting a positive coaching quote on Pead.
“We’re trying to find as many guys as we can that can contribute to special teams,” Gase said. “We want to make sure that’s one of the strongest parts of our team. (Pead’s) ability to be able to play multiple phases is obviously good for us.
“At the same time, offensively we like him as a back. We like him when he has the ball in his hands. We feel like he makes a lot of plays, and he’s able to protect and he’s able to catch the ball out of the backfield. So he’s one of those guys who’s got a great skill set for what we do on offense and the special teams is very valuable.”
There was a time when Ajayi’s skill set was the prime topic when discussing what Gase wants and needs from his running backs. Without him last Sunday, the Dolphins went 3-of-14 on third down, a sign that something definitely was needed. On the other hand, Ryan Tannehill connected with running backs for two big pass plays, a 50-yarder to Foster and a 29-yarder to Damien Williams to set up Miami’s only touchdown.
Ajayi has made himself scarce in the locker room during media access periods this week, so it’s difficult to know what he’s thinking.
What he’s doing should be easy enough to figure. He’s working to make himself seem invaluable again, and fighting to gain Gase’s trust.
These ordinarily are training-camp concerns, but Ajayi has postponed them until now. Bad timing. Bad judgment in concluding such matters didn’t apply to him anymore.