New Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase made an immediate impact in his first head-coaching jog, ending the team’s eight-year playoff drought.
On the fourth day of Christmas 2008, quarterback Chad Pennington glued his rickety right shoulder on tightly enough to help provide the Miami Dolphins a shot at capturing the most glorified trophy in all the land. Or was that was just a trip to the NFL Playoffs?
South Florida’s beloved team hasn’t been in the playoffs since then, but has reemerged eight years later in the race for a Super Bowl title. Astonishingly, though, the Dolphins owned a five percent chance to sneak into the postseason after a 17-point loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 5, handing them a 1-4 start. Nevertheless, first-year head coach Adam Gase orchestrated the thrilling turnaround to finally establish a standard for success within the organization.
Following a one-year stint as the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator, along with spending five years on the Denver Broncos’ sidelines, Gase accepted his first head coaching job in Miami. Looking to improve upon the franchise’s 49-63 mark over the previous seven seasons, his most intricate task revolved around fifth-year QB Ryan Tannehill.
Despite becoming the fourth signal caller in league history to accumulate 3,000-plus yards in each of his first four years, Tannehill still averaged a pedestrian 61.8 completion percentage over that span. Although it jumped up a bit during the first five contests of this season (63.4), nine turnovers — seven of which were interceptions — followed suit. While Gase’s West Coast offense included pieces of ex-offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s gameplan, Tannehill was still unable to fully digest the system.
— Bizarro Sports Guy (@SportsBizarro) September 30, 2016
However, a nonexistent running game was a significant part of the problem. During that five-game stretch, the Dolphins generated a mere 72.4 yards per carry (No. 31 in the NFL). Moreover, the offense ranked dead-last in the league in rushing attempts per contest (18.2). Miami signed dynamic tailback Arian Foster in the offseason, but he suffered another soft-tissue injury in Week 2, forcing the often-injured star to retire.
Once Gase was subsequently forced into a running back-by-committee approach, he was unable to develop faith in one clear-cut option between Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams and Isaiah Pead. This inadequate method was highlighted in a 15-point loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, as the four members each tallied at least two carries and couldn’t establish any momentum.
In the midst of a turbulent start to the campaign, Ajayi attempted to persuade Gase to alter the playbook for his violent rushing style. While most coaches would resist taking advice from a backup player, their evident trust in one another would completely alter the Dolphins’ fortunes.
“He was very receptive and took notes down,” Ajayi said prior to Week 9’s matchup with the New York Jets. “That’s one thing about coach Gase when it comes to our offense, he’s always receptive to advice on things we’re seeing because we’re out there on the field and we know what’s going on.”
— Blitzburgh (@Steel_Curtain4) October 16, 2016
In Week 6, the former Boise State running back handled the load, torturing the Pittsburgh Steelers with 204 yards on 25 touches (8.2 YPC), as well as two scores, in a 30-15 victory. Plus, Ajayi’s 62-yard touchdown run with under a minute to go exhibited his then-unknown strengths, as he muscled his way through two would-be tacklers and darted by another on his way into the end zone.
On top of that, Tannehill produced his most efficient stat line in 2016 despite failing to throw for any touchdowns. The Texas native was a sound 24-of-32 for 252 yards and, most importantly, manufactured no turnovers. Prior to spraining his ACL and MCL against the Arizona Cardinals, he clearly benefited from Ajayi’s presence, collecting a 13:5 touchdown/interception ratio.
One week later, Ajayi handled 28 carries in a 214-yard performance (7.6 YPC) in a three-point win against the Bills. Incredibly, the second-year pro combined to break 13 tackles in the two contests. For Gase, the newfound gem was an ideal substitution for his well-known, short yet effective passing assault. But the inclination to change was the main cog in hatching a contender.
Just so you know.. if Jay Ajayi played The Bills 16 times.. he would end up with 3,360 yards based on this year's results.
— trey wingo (@wingoz) December 26, 2016
Those two victories blended into an unthinkable nine wins in the next 10 affairs, pushing the Dolphins (10-5) into the No. 6 seed in the AFC playoff picture. The aforementioned totals have rocketed up in the process, too. Miami is amassing 116.6 rushing yards per game, good for ninth in the league. Their attempts per contest also improved, maneuvering to No. 15 in the NFL (25.5).
Overall, Ajayi’s dominance has even jolted him to sixth in the league in total rushing yards (1,213), behind only Ezekiel Elliot, Le’Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy and David Johnson. Additionally, in Miami’s Week 16 win versus the Bills (which helped clinch the final Wild Card spot in the AFC), Ajayi eclipsed 200-plus yards again (206) and became the fourth rusher in NFL history to do so three times in a campaign.
Let’s take a peek back at the offseason. If the Broncos hadn’t matched the Dolphins’ offer for tailback C.J. Anderson in the offseason, Ajayi’s tale would’ve most likely been left in the fiction section. Thus, whether fill-in QB Matt Moore or the aforementioned Tannehill starts under center in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, Gase’s candid demeanor and his willingness to adjust will forever embody Miami’s hard-hitting run.