It was a strange, surprising decision that has become even more inexplicable as the NFL season progressed.
Following a breakout 2016 season, Jay Ajayi was traded on Halloween by the Miami Dolphins to the Philadelphia Eagles. A slow start, plus public criticism by his coach, were followed by whispers that the running back was a poor locker room presence.
With the Eagles, who face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII on Sunday in Minneapolis (4:30 p.m., NBC), no such problems have arisen.
“The storylines that came out were a little bit disappointing,” Ajayi told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday. “But that’s the business.”
The former Boise State great hasn’t put up eye-popping rushing numbers like he did in his 1,272-yard season in 2016, but he picked up 408 yards on the ground in seven regular-season games with the Eagles, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He averaged 3.8 ypc with the Dolphins the first seven games of 2017.
“We’ve got to stop trying to hit home runs all the time,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said just days before the trade. “How about take the four or five yards you’re going to get? It comes down to everybody doing your job. If we start doing that, it might help. That’s on the running back. Do your job. It’s not hard.”
Ajayi has thus far done his job quite well, even if being part of a committee with LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement isn’t quite like being the workhorse he was in Miami. And as far as being a team player, he’s doing a bit of the dirty work, too, as tight end Trey Burton told Yahoo! “His pass (protection) blew my mind,” Burton said.
The Miami Herald reported after the trade that Ajayi “complained bitterly about not getting the football. He stormed out of the locker room — get this, after wins — because he hadn’t gotten what he deemed to be enough carries. And, oh yes, he didn’t exactly light it up on the field.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday: “When he arrived, he and I had a conversation and really I just explained to him the environment, the locker room he was joining. Part of my message this year to our team, to our players, is about ownership. We’re always looking to better our roster, obviously, and Jay has made us better. Our guys embraced him.”
Veteran receiver Torrey Smith told NFL.com: “He’s also a great locker room presence. He’s full of energy and he’s fit in since he got here. He’s just a ball of light, and he’s been able to be himself from day one.”
The public is embracing Ajayi, too. According to Bovada, he has the most money bet on him to be Super Bowl MVP outside of the two quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Nick Foles. In the Eagles’ two playoff games, Ajayi has 127 yards rushing and 70 yards receiving.
A fifth-round pick in 2015, Ajayi was dealt for a fourth-rounder in April’s draft. The Dolphins only can hope they strike gold with another pick in the same area.
“I think of him as an elite back,” Patriots defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “It was kind of crazy that the Dolphins let him go in the middle of the season, but it’s been a blessing for the Philadelphia Eagles and now he’s in the Super Bowl. He’s hard to tackle. He’s not going down on first contact. He can do the inside runs and the outside runs, which means he can basically do it all.”
Ajayi will be the first Boise State player to rush the ball in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Former linebacker turned fullback Korey Hall had a 2-yard catch for the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Though he initially had hopes of playing another kind of football, growing up in England, Ajayi moved to Texas in 2000 when he was 7. In the gridiron-mad state, he quickly fell in love with the sport, and now he’s on the biggest stage in the game.
“This is a dream come true. It’s crazy how things happen,” Ajayi said.
Boise State players in the Super Bowl
1976: Rolly Woolsey, DB, Cowboys
1988: Markus Koch, DE, Redskins
1992: Koch, DE, Redskins*
2005: Quintin Mikell, DB, Eagles
2006: Kimo von Oelhoffen, DT, Steelers
2011: Korey Hall (Glenns Ferry High), FB, Packers
2011: Daryn Colledge, G, Packers
2014: Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos*
2014: Jeron Johnson, DB, Seahawks*
2015: Johnson, DB, Seahawks
2016: Matt Paradis (Council High), C, Broncos
2016: Clady, OT, Broncos*
2017: Shea McClellin, LB, Patriots
2018: McClellin, LB, Patriots*
2018: Jay Ajayi, RB, Eagles
Winners in bold
* Did not/will not play