Adam Gase’s 12 Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 3


The Miami Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can make the team into a playoff contender. The road to get there is not a matter of one big leap, but rather, a series of small steps.

While many South Florida residents were outraged when the Miami Dolphins lost Lamar Miller to the Houston Texans in free agency, the team’s rookie head coach, Adam Gase, was not among them. Then again, that should come as no surprise, because, from the beginning, Gase hinted Miami’s running game would move in a drastically different direction.

It has now become clear that the young coach plans on implementing a hybrid of the running back by committee approach, relying on versatility over predictability, and conditioning over continuous substitutions.

“We look for guys who can stay out there all three downs. We’re not looking to sub personnel,” said Gase, according to Brandon Howard of Sports Talk Florida. “But really whoever the guy is that we start with in the series, that’s the guy I want finishing.”

While that makes sense for an offense that hopes to move at a brisk pace to limit defensive substitutions, Gase will have to make Miami’s running game work using three running backs whose long term health remains in question. Fortunately, the rookie head coach got plenty of experience with injuries backs while serving as the offensive coordinator in both Denver and Chicago, and it is a big part of the reason he prefers to use a multiple back approach. In fact, over the last 3 seasons, his backs missed a combined total of nearly 50 games. Even so, Gase’s rotating backfields absorbed those setbacks so successfully that they ran the ball an average of 457 times per season (28.5 times a game). During that same period, Miami, spearheaded by Miller, managed just 364 runs per season (22.75 carries per game).

Those statistics should prove encouraging to Dolphins fans considering Jay Ajayi, the team’s projected starter, poses a long-term durability question due to a torn ACL he suffered back in 2011, an injury some physicians have speculated may shorten his career. Ajayi also missed a slew of games at the start of his rookie campaign after breaking a rib in the final preseason game. Regardless, the Dolphins remain high on the second-year tailback, and with good reason.

While lacking Miller’s breakaway speed, at 6’0’’ and 221lbs, Ajayi is the kind of power runner his former teammate never was, with uncanny balance that allows him to spin out of tackles and fight for additional yardage.

“He’s a shiftier guy than I ever thought he was,” said Gase, via the team’s official site. “I didn’t see him being as elusive as he has been, (as) I’ve seen on film.”

Ajayi is also superior to Miller as a receiver out of the backfield, thanks to above average hands. Nevertheless, it is his work ethic that has made him the early frontrunner for the starting job.

“(Ajayi’s) been one of those guys, he’s been here every day. He’s done everything right. You can tell he’s looking to improve. He doesn’t say much, just keeps working.” said Gase during the team’s minicamp, according to 560 AM. “The rest of that group has done a good job to try and keep up with him, but obviously he’s kind of separated himself from that group as far as the consistency of what he does day in and day out.”

“(Ajayi’s) been one of those guys, he’s been here every day. He’s done everything right. You can tell he’s looking to improve. He doesn’t say much, just keeps working.”

Among those looking to close the gap between themselves and Ajayi is rookie Kenyan Drake, who, at 6’1” and 210lbs, is an explosive duel threat who played behind Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Even so, Drake made the most of his limited playing time at Alabama, scoring a touchdown every 12.7 touches, while averaging an impressive 6.4 yards per carry and 12.4 yards per reception. Moreover, he was such an effective pass catcher that he often lined up at wide receiver, exhibiting the kind of versatility Dolphins’ coaches covet.

“You look at his career, he’s done a little bit of everything,” said Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, according to the Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley. “He’s caught passes. He’s run the ball well. He’s had high yards per carry. He’s caught the ball out of the backfield. He’s covered kicks. It’s almost like ‘What can’t this guy do?”

Unfortunately for Drake, whose prior injuries include a broken leg in 2014 and a broken arm in 2015, his pursuit of Ajayi was slowed by a minor hamstring injury in minicamp, on, as it happens, the same day he signed his pro contract. That penchant for injuries, along with the fact that he and Ajayi are both unproven commodities at the pro level, led the Dolphins’ front office to go in search of an experienced veteran who could not only provide leadership in the locker room, but contribute on the field as well. That search ended with the addition of former Houston Texan, Arian Foster.

Unlike his younger teammates, Foster’s ability is not in question, but his productivity as a rusher is clearly not what it used to be, to the point that his yards per season have dropped a whopping 42.5% since 2012.

Avg Rush AttsAvg YdsAvg Per CarryAvg TDs

His production as a receiver has also taken a significant hit, dipping 35.8% over that same time period.

Avg RecsAvg YdsAvg Per RecAvg TDs

As has been well documented, the reason for this sharp decline in productivity is, of course, Foster’s health. Never the most durable of backs, he has played a full 16 games only twice in his career. Even so, his drastic decrease in availability over recent years is cause for concern. From 2009 through 2012, Foster played in 43 of 64 games, or 67% of the time, but from 2013 on, he has played in just 25 of 48 games, a mere 53%. As such, any notion that Gase brought Foster in to compete for the starting job is misguided. Instead, he will likely limit his role to an occasional drive, or recast him as a situational player, primarily on passing downs due to his good hands and sound blocking.

For his part, Foster seems fine with the idea of being a niche player.

"“I think [Dolphins coach] Adam [Gase] really knows how to use running backs out of the backfield, which I feel like is my best quality, route running and catching the ball out of the backfield,” explained the former Texan, to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. “I think he knows how to steer the ship. I’m just happy to be a part [and] have a seat on the boat now.”"

Foster’s enthusiasm for Gase’s passing scheme, which is known for its array of screen plays, is well justified given how fruitful it has proven in the past. Under Gase, the Denver Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman combined to bring down 92 receptions for 812 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. The following year, Ball, Hillman and C.J. Anderson hauled in another 64 passes for 525 yards and three TDs. While in 2015, the Chicago Bears’ Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey and Matt Forte totaled 69 receptions for 687 yards and five scores. By comparison, Miami’s top three backs last season, Miller, Ajayi and Damien Williams, pulled in 75 catches, but managed just 629 yards and 3 TDs.

In spite of Gase’s proven track record, many still question his decision to go with a backfield comprised of unproven youngsters and a fading veteran, all of whom have significant injuries on their resumes. This is especially true of fans who remain bitter over Miami not resigning Lamar Miller, a player who has never missed a game. Nevertheless, there is both practical and financial logic to Gase’s thinking.

While Miller has never suffered a major injury as a pro, he has also not proven himself to be a workhorse back. Whether that was due to his limitations, or a coaching staff that abandoned the run on a regular basis, is now a moot point. What is unquestionable is that free agency priced the former Miami Hurricane right out of a part-time role in Gase’s rotating backfield.

Houston inked Miller a four-year deal with an average yearly salary of $6.5 million, and for that, the Texans will be expecting him to take on the 20-plus carries per game that Foster handled when healthy. A tall order to be sure, especially since Miller has averaged a mere 9.9 carries per game over his career, with a high of 13.5 rushes per game in 2014 . The danger for the Texans is, of course, the increased probability of an injury to Miller, whose contract also includes $14 million in guaranteed money.

In contrast, Gase’s backfield of Ajayi, Drake and Foster will earn a combined $2,735,518 in 2015, or 42% of Miller’s average salary. In addition, their total guaranteed money is 10.3% of what is proportioned in Miller’s contract. In other words, even if all three Miami backs were to suffer career ending injuries this season, the Dolphins would only be out $1,442,073, while if the same happened to Miller, Houston would be dealt a crippling blow that could affect the team for years.

In contrast, if Gase’s plan pans out, the Dolphins will reap several benefits from their cost effective, more versatile running game. Improved short yardage power from Ajayi, more dangerous pass catchers in Drake and Foster to create mismatches against opposing linebackers, and a rotating system that should help Miami’s backs remain fresh late into the 4th quarter, when the running the ball becomes crucial to eating time off the clock. All of this, of course, hinges on Gase improving the team’s much maligned offensive line, and that is precisely what we will be discussing in the next article in this series.

To read previous articles in this series, click here.