BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Miami Dolphins were willing to dump a 24-year-old running back who nearly rushed for 1,300 yards the year prior because Jay Ajayi was viewed as a negative influence in their locker room.
The Philadelphia Eagles were more than willing to take on the Dolphins’ problem and make him their asset. But it required a little post-trade intervention from head coach Doug Pederson and other Eagles players before it worked out to the level it has.
On Halloween, the Dolphins traded Ajayi to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick in a move that earned head-scratching on both sides. For the Dolphins, it was letting go of the back whom head coach Adam Gase had called his “bell cow” entering training camp. And for the Eagles, it appeared to be a luxury move and perhaps too much of an overlap, skill-wise, to what LeGarrette Blount offered.
But over time, the trade made plenty more sense.
Gase was done with Ajayi, who had been in and out of the coach’s doghouse ever since Gase had to leave Ajayi behind on the trip to Seattle in Week 1 of the 2016 season when he complained about not being named a starter. Prior to the trade, Gase called out Ajayi, saying that Ajayi was trying to hit too many home runs and not getting the 4 or 5 yards most plays were blocked up for.
"It's on the running back,” Gase said. “Do your job. That's what you've got to do. It's not hard.”
Less than a week later, he was gone from Miami. "I think it was time for us to move on," Gase said at the time.
And despite arriving less than a week earlier, Ajayi rushed eight times for 77 yards and a score in a blowout Eagles win over the Broncos. His workload steadily has increased ever since, and he’s now a big part of an offense that is dangerous and balanced despite losing starting quarterback Carson Wentz.
But Pederson, who said Tuesday he “didn’t know a ton about Jay” before the trade, needed to explain to Ajayi how things were going to be in Philadelphia going forward.
“When he arrived, he and I had a conversation and really I just explained to him the environment, the locker room he was joining,” Pederson said. “Part of my message this year to our team, to our players, is about ownership. We’re always looking to better our roster obviously, and Jay has made us better.”
Ajayi, Blount and Corey Clement have worked well together, and despite a reduced workload (138 carries in Miami this season to 70 in Philly), Ajayi has made more of his opportunities. He totaled only 465 rush yards in Miami before the trade and didn’t score a touchdown, but he’s had 605 rush yards (including playoffs) and scored twice. Even with a hiccup here and there, such as a shaky playoff game with a fumble against the Atlanta Falcons, Ajayi has mostly thrived.
Being a good fit in the scheme and picking it up quickly was one big benefit. But staying on the good side of his new coaches clearly was another.
“It’s a touchy situation, because at the end of the day I didn’t come with this clean story line,” Ajayi said, per PFT. “Obviously, there was a storyline of me being a bad teammate and all that stuff. … Some people may think that, so it was kind of let me just be myself, show who I am, be true to myself and everything will all work itself out, and it did.”
Eagles center Jason Kelce is one of the grizzled veterans on a roster that has seen a ton of turnover the past two years, so he’s seen a lot of changes recently — including to the locker room. Pederson’s arrival and installation of a nine-player leadership council has helped open the lines of communication between the players and the coaches. They know Pederson’s expectations, and Pederson has a finger on the pulse of the locker room, so Ajayi had entered a pretty sturdy environment even with all the new faces.
“He’s let us be men,” Kelce said. “He’s listened to us, and he’s let us have responsibility and carry it out. When we don’t, he lets us know. It’s a two-way street, so there’s no mystery there.”
As for Ajayi, Pederson said he’s been a good addition — and a good team player, too.
“Our guys embraced him,” Pederson said. “Our guys have said, ‘Listen, this is the way we practice; this is the way we do things.’ We haven’t had any problems out of Jay. He’s been awesome to work with. He’s part of that running back group that has been real successful for us this year so it’s fun to watch him perform.”
Ajayi has found a place where he can be happy as well, even if it’s not getting as many carries as he had in Miami.
“I love Coach [Pederson], I love the plays he calls,” Ajayi said. “We have a different scheme, a different offensive line. Everything is new, but I am loving it. I made it to a great place.”