Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi is no fluke; he’s a franchise back

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 24: Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins is tackled by Corey White #30 of the Buffalo Bills during the first half at New Era Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

Jay Ajayi of the Miami Dolphins is tackled by Corey White of the Buffalo Bills during the first half at New Era Stadium. Ajayi ran for 206 yards on 32 carries. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Jay Ajayi did it again. But he didn’t just do it again, with 200-plus rushing yards against a Rex Ryan-coached Buffalo Bills team that left Western New York media grilling Ryan with questions like, “Can you imagine if it’s your defense that leads you out (of town)?”

It was ruthless. But then again, so was Ajayi.

For the Miami Dolphins running back, who happens to be a Pro Bowl alternate, made a loud statement about who he is and where he’s going — nowhere but Adam Gase’s backfield for a long, long time.

Ajayi reached statistical milestones on Saturday, leading Miami to yet another victory, their ninth in 10 games. And no player has been more critical to the turnaround than Ajayi.

It should not be overlooked that Ajayi has produced one of the most statistically impressive seasons by any running back in NFL history.

Only four running backs have ever topped 200 yards in a game three times or more in a season (Ajayi, Earl Campbell, O.J. Simpson and Tiki Barber).

Only three running backs have ever topped 200 yards against the same opponent in the same season (Ajayi, O.J. Simpson and Jamal Lewis).

But here is how this was different than the October game at Hard Rock Stadium when Ajayi trampled the Bills for 214 yards on 28 carries:

  • Center Mike Pouncey did not play in this game. And Pouncey is the most important run blocker on Miami’s offensive line.
  • Ajayi did it on the road. Ajayi hadn’t even scored one touchdownon the road this season.
  • He did it in the cold. Say what you want about how it wasn’t that cold in Buffalo on Saturday. And for sure, it could have been worse. But a game-time temperature of 38 degrees is not ideal for any player, or team, that trains for the season when it’s 98.
  • Ryan Tannehill was not playing. Matt Moore was shaky early on, and Tannehill was on the sideline (without a bulky cast, which is a positive development). But all of Buffalo’s eyes (often eight in the box) were on Ajayi. And it did not matter.

What Ajayi proved on Saturday, and nothing is more important, is that those performances early in the season, despite recent struggles, are not, as I put it delicately to Ajayi, an “aberration.”

Ajayi chose instead a word I actually used on Twitter during the game.

“When I step out on the field I don’t really have any worries about if someone else thinks I’m not good enough, or if I’m a fluke or whatever,” Ajayi said. “I know what I’m capable of. And I think I’m proving I can be one of the best running backs in this league.”

Not a fluke. This is essential.

Ajayi, a fifth-round draft choice out of Boise State, who — and this will likely be the last time I mention this the rest of the season — was left behind for the opener at Seattle in a coaching decision, has proven he has staying power.

He is legit. He is no fluke.

“He’s a grinder, a workhorse,” Dolphins tight end Dion Sims said. “He goes 100 miles an hour.”

“Jay runs angry,” said center Kraig Urbik (the scrapper filling in for Pouncey). “Sometimes it’s good blocking. Sometimes he’s breaking two or three tackles. I think the line really wanted to help get him over that hump. He’s been working his tail off all year and we wanted to get him back running like he was.”

“His name is Jay Ajayi and he does what he wants,” guard Laremy Tunsil said. “Jay is a hard, hard, hard, hard runner. Man, he doesn’t give up on anything. He runs through contact and arm tackles.”

Ajayi has earned the respect of his teammates, and coaches, Rex Ryan, the Bills, and an entire league (whether he was voted for the Pro Bowl or not).

First-year coach Adam Gase has consistently defended Ajayi, his numbers regressed, or not. Ajayi ran for 2.5, 2.4 and 2.7 yards per carry in three of the previous four games and Gase’s message to Ajayi was consistent.

Don’t get frustrated. Don’t get disappointed. Keep doing what you’re doing. Stay on course. Run the exact same way.

“This is probably the first game since San Diego where we’ve been pretty much healthy,” Gase said of Miami’s offensive line.

Ajayi claims he gets stronger as the game wears on, and once again, he backed up the claim.

Ajayi ran for 57 yards in overtime to set up the winning field goal, bouncing out along the left sideline and showing the speed some said he did not have.

“Patience,” Ajayi said.

Ever more impressive may have been Ajayi’s two-yard touchdown in the first quarter, breaking a tackle when he, by all rights, should have been tackled for loss.

“When you get that close to the end zone, you’ve got to score,” Ajayi said.

It cannot be overstated how the sudden emergence of Ajayi, after the team began 1-4, is the single most important reason for the Dolphins’ turnaround.

And it cannot be overstated how important he should be to Miami’s success for years to come.

Ajayi, by the way, finished the game with what he said was an “AC joint” injury to his left shoulder. Ajayi said “I’ll be good,” and he’d better be.

Only three Dolphins have ever run for more than Ajayi’s 1,213 yards this season, but his value transcends numbers. Ajayi is a major part of the identity transformation of this team from passive and weak to violent and aggressive.

“He’s such a quiet guy off the field,” said Miami running back Kenyan Drake. “But when you see him on the field, it’s like two different people. We feed off of him. We feed off of his toughness. He’s going to get those yards after contact. He gets the most out of every run.”

Throughout the game, stadium operations at New Era Field kept pumping loud train horn sounds into the speakers, as Miami began drives and faced third down.

“I was like, ‘Why are they playing this?'” Tunsil said. “They played it at the right moment, too.”

Surely the Bills knew that Ajayi is nicknamed the Jay-Train and that stadium operators at Hard Rock Stadium play loud train horn sounds when Miami has the ball.

Or, maybe, I suppose, they didn’t know.

In the same way the Miami Dolphins didn’t always know what they had in Ajayi.

A legitimate franchise running back.

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