Question of the Week: Is Miami’s Running Game as Bad as Critics Say?

Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) carries the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake (32) carries the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports /

While quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken the brunt of the blame for the Miami Dolphins’ poor start, some fans have pointed the finger at the team’s running game. Yet, a closer look at what that unit has actually done reveals both surprising and not-so-surprising results.

At face value, the Dolphins’ 2016 running statistics provide a very confusing picture, particularly when compared to those of their opponents.

TeamAttsYdsAvgTDs1st Downs

To the surprise of many, which would include just about anyone who has watched opposing running attacks shred the Dolphins’ defense, Miami actually has a better yards-per-carry average than their rivals, and more rushing touchdowns. What comes as no surprise is the fact that the Dolphins have run the ball an average of 18.5 yards per game, while their opponents have averaged a whopping 34.7 rushing attempts per contest.

To put that into perspective, consider that between 2012 and 2015, under the Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell regimes, which were often criticized for abandoning the run by halftime, the Dolphins averaged 23.9 carries per game.

That is a shocking statistic considering that,  as I clearly explained in Adam Gase’s Twelve Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 1 back in July, bringing balance to the team’s offense was one of the rookie head coach’s top priorities.

So, why has Miami ignored such a key component of their game? Well, the answer to that question centers, in part, around the team’s decision to bring in Arian Foster, a move that yielded a stunning mix of both predictable and unexpected results.

On the predictable side, as a runner, Foster has thus far been a bust. Like Knowshon Moreno before him, he has come to Miami at a stage in his career where his body is too brittle to withstand the rigors of the NFL. Thus, after less than a game-and-a-half of football, he found himself on the sidelines and hasn’t played since. Furthermore, anyone holding out hope that he will somehow recover and return to his former Pro Bowl status is highly likely to be disappointed. Foster, who remains doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans, has played in just 27 of the last 52 games, dating back to the start of the 2013 season. Worse still, even when healthy as of late, his statistics as a runner have been abysmal, signaling that he is almost surely nearing the end of his career.

Arian FosterAttsYdsAvgTDs

What the Dolphins didn’t see coming was the reaction that signing Foster would trigger in Jay Ajayi. Rather than stepping up and seizing the starting role, as Gase had expected, Ajayi pouted and put in a miserable preseason. Ajayi’s attitude only got worse after Foster was named the starter, to the point that he wasn’t even allowed to travel with the team to face the Seahawks for the season opener in Seattle.

Now, to be clear. Ajayi’s attitude is no one’s fault but his own, and a far cry from what any reasonable person would have expected from a professional athlete. Nevertheless, the decision to start Foster had a ripple effect on the Dolphins’ offense. To begin with, by relying on Foster, the team had no real running attack on opening day against the Seahawks, and things didn’t get any better until the aging back left the game with an injury in the first half against New England the following week.

vs Seahawks20643.21
vs Patriots16704.41

Since then, the Dolphins’ running game has taken an upward trajectory, improving by about 1 yard per carry.

vs Browns251154.61
vs Bengals13624.80

So, what has made the difference? Well, the offensive line is slowly improving its run blocking. There is no doubt of that. Yet, the real catalyst has been the emergence of rookie Kenyan Drake, and the return to form of Ajayi. If you doubt this, simply compare their numbers to those of Foster.


Now, these figures shouldn’t be taken to imply that Foster doesn’t have a role to play in the Dolphins’ offense. In fact, as the next chart shows, he could still prove quite valuable in one aspect of the game.


As a receiver out of the backfield, Foster has no equal on the Dolphins’ roster because, even though he can no longer withstand the rigors of running between the tackles, he remains superbly gifted in the open field, as he showed on a beautiful 50-yard catch-and-run against Seattle. In other words, at this stage of his career, he is at his best as a complimentary receiver out of the backfield, exactly as I predicted Gase intended to use him in Adam Gase’s 12 Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 3, before Ajayi’s attitude issues arose.

Furthermore, in Adam Gase’s 12 Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 11, I predicted that Kenyan Drake would become the team’s primary back by the end of the 2016 season, and little-by-little, that seems to be emerging as a very real possibility, especially considering that he is averaging just under 5 yards per carry at this point, exceeding even my expectations.

2016 Running Back Projections

K. Drake1456384.47
J. Ajayi963443.64
A. Foster843113.72
R. Tannehill452485.51


Still, despite the upward trend in yards per carry, there remains one key component yet to be resolved. Because, if we project what Miami’s backfield has actually done thus far this season over the length of a full 16 games, the results would look like this.

2016 Running Back Projections

K. Drake522564.94
J. Ajayi723004.24
A. Foster641882.90
R. Tannehill482164.54

To put it bluntly, Miami needs to run the ball more….A LOT MORE! After four games, they have passed 65.1% of the time and run just 34.9%. As Dolphins’ fans well know, numbers like these are a guaranteed recipe for disaster. One of the biggest issues Miami’s offense has dealt with over the past few years has been an extreme imbalance between the pass and run. Yet, even at its worse, it has never been as disproportionately skewed towards the pass as it has been thus far this season.


So, is this pass-to-run ratio what Gase really wants? Of course not. As the chart below clearly indicates, his offenses have been trending towards an ever more balanced attack through the years.

Team and SeasonPassRun
2013 Denver Broncos59.4%40.6%
2014 Denver Broncos57.8%42.2%
2015 Chicago Bears52.7%47.3%

The extreme nature of Miami’s pass-to-run ratio has only come about because the team has fallen behind early in 3 of their 4 games this season. Thus, the solution is clear. The Dolphins must get off to a good start, like they did against the Bengals. Then, sustain that momentum by running the ball more often, getting themselves into more manageable third down situations….and converting those opportunities.

This, of course, will only happen if Gase finally sets the depth chart as it should be, with Drake and Ajayi carrying the load, and Foster playing the role of a change-of-pace back. Thus, to answer this week’s question, the Dolphins don’t have a bad running attack, as many fans perceive. They just need to use it more wisely….and far more often.