05 Sep Jay Ajayi: 2016 – Just The Beginning
The job description of an NFL running back has transformed over the last decade. The days of legendary backs like Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and Ricky Williams touting the rock 400 times in one year, are gone. In vogue in 2017, a compliment of backs, each with his own skill set defined by a specialized role.
Look no further the model franchise of the NFL and its stable of backs. Bill Belichick brought Rex Burkhead and Mike Gilislee to New England adding the incumbent duo of James White and Dion Lewis. The Patriots Super Bowl counterpart, Atlanta Falcons, boast the NFL’s deadliest duo of runners in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Despite the success of the Super Bowl participants running back by committee, four teams are taking the throwback approach of a featured back. In 2016 the Steelers, Cowboys and Dolphins rode their pro-bowl backs into the post-season. The Cardinals didn’t qualify for January’s tournament, but David Johnson was hardly the reason.
2016 NFL running back carry percentages
|2016 Running Back Workload %|
|1. David Johnson||73%|
|2. Jay Ajayi||64%|
|2. Zeke Elliot||64%|
|2. Le’Veon Bell||64%|
Ajayi finished among the star backs despite a sputtering start to his sophomore season. After unceremoniously being left in Miami during the team’s week one trip to Seattle, Ajayi carried the football only 18 times in the Dolphins next three games. His 18 carries accounted for just 24% of Adam Gase’s ground attack over the first four weeks.
The final three-quarters of the season, however, would be different.
Ajayi Carried the football 242 times in 12 games. The rest of the Dolphins team took hand-offs just 88 times during that stretch. Ajayi’s 242 carries gave him a workload of 73% over that 12-game stretch, equaling league leader, David Johnson.
After Miami dropped game in Cincinnati to fall to 1-3, Adam Gase spoke to media in regards to his running back options.
“I think I’ve got to get … Whether it’s one or two guys, I need to create some kind of flow for these guys,” Gase added on Wednesday, recognizing the issue. “I feel like last week, I probably should’ve done a better job as far as if somebody got hot, keeping them in the game instead of moving guys in and out. That was some bad coaching by me, as far as rotating those guys. Going forward, hopefully we can target a couple of guys a game or one guy a game and let that guy get in the flow of it and see what happens.”
The Tennessee game wasn’t prime for a breakout performance simply because of the scoreboard. Despite trailing most of the game, Ajayi received a season-high 13 carries. The Dolphins only ran the ball 17 times in that game – Gase found his bell cow.
Ajayi would go on to post back to back 200 yard rushing performances, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams as the only players in NFL history to accomplish that feat. Two short month later, Ajayi ripped the Bills for 200 again, carrying the Dolphins into the post-season for the first time since 2008.
Adam Gase is a lauded as a quarterback whisperer. His quarterback friendly schemes procured the best seasons of Ryan Tannehill and Jay Cutler’s career. Gase also worked alongside Peyton Manning during the Denver Broncos 2013 record-breaking season.
The decorated passing game prowess of Gase got him where he is today. Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore, Jay Cutler, it never mattered who his quarterback was going to be. With the league leader in broken tackles (and second in yards after contact,) Gase knows where his bread is buttered – his superstar running back, Jay Ajayi.
Ajayi’s violent running style, quick decision-making and one-cut ability make for a dynamic force. If there were any concerns about a repeat performance, Ajayi put those worries to bed with a few of his runs during the 2017 pre-season.
Runs like those, with the increased workload, make Ajayi a dark-horse to bring an MVP trophy back to Miami for the first time since 1984.