Some two hours before the Dolphins’ newest hero excused himself to go throw up, Kenyan Drake sat at that same locker, somehow feeling even worse.
It was halftime of Dolphins-Jets on Sunday, and Drake knew he just cost his team a touchdown. Just before the break, Jakeem Grant burst free for a 57-yard punt-return touchdown, but it didn’t count. Drake committed an illegal block, and the officials didn’t miss it.
So there he sat in the Dolphins locker room, gutted. Darren Rizzi, Miami’s special teams coordinator, sidled up next to the rookie running back, determined to get Drake’s head back in the game.
“You’ve got to get one back,” Rizzi told him.
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Did he ever.
Drake made amends in the biggest way, returning a late kickoff 96 yards for the game-winning touchdown in Miami’s 27-23 gut-check victory over the Jets.
“I think those are what teams are made of,” Drake said. “You always have to think, ‘Why not me?’”
That might as well be the Dolphins’ mantra.
Their three-game winning streak — longest since 2014 — has only been possible because of production from unexpected (i.e., young) players.
Few outside of Miami and Boise, Idaho, had heard of Jay Ajayi a month ago. Now, he’s one of the league’s most fearsome young backs.
After back-to-back 200-plus yard games, Ajayi did something just as impressive Sunday: rush for 111 yards (on 24 carries) against the league’s No. 1 run defense.
Then there’s defensive tackle Jordan Phillips — largely invisible in his first year-and-a-half as a pro. That changed in a big way Sunday, when he not only intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick on a zone blitz, but hurdled Jets receiver Robby Anderson during his return.
That’s how you win games when you get just 149 passing yards (on 17 of 28 attempts) from Ryan Tannehill.
That’s how you win games when you surrender 6.7 yards per carry on the ground.
And that’s how you win games when your punter drops the ball at the worst possible time.
Matt Darr — perhaps the most dependable Dolphins in the season’s first seven games — simply botched the long snap on fourth-and-6 with some six minutes left in regulation and the Jets down four.
New York took over in the red zone, and two plays later, Fitzpatrick connected with Jalin Marshall on a 18-yard touchdown pass that gave the Jets the lead.
“There’s no excuse for it,” Darr said. “The game was on my shoulders there. I feel terrible about it. I’m real glad that [Drake] was able to pick me up.”
Drake could do so only because he put his own costly screw up behind him.
“I kept telling him, ‘You owe me one,’” Grant said. “’I got mine called back, so there’s no choice but for you to return it.’”
Drake had the will. The Jets gave him the way.
See, he should never have had the ball in his hands.
After Marshall’s go-ahead touchdown, the Jets kicked to Grant, who ran in circles for a while, then ultimately went down at the Miami 19.
But Jets safety Antonio Allen was offsides (one of 10 Jets penalties Sunday) on the kickoff, and Rizzi knew New York’s specialists were gassed from chasing the speedy Grant.
So he had Nick Folk kick again from five yards back.
Here’s where good coaching and good fortune converged. Rizzi called a middle return; the Jets kicked to Drake, who fielded the ball at the Miami 4 outside the left hash.
Rizzi was right; the Jets (3-6) were spent before they even made it down the field. A wall of blockers funneled Drake into the middle; Grant — the smallest player on the field — was a courageous lead blocker.
Drake zipped through the first level, made corner Buster Skrine miss, then had only Folk, the kicker, between himself and glory.
“I couldn’t let him tackle me,” Drake said.
Folk didn’t. Drake went full throttle, ran past the last threat, and didn’t stop until he crossed the goal line.
But he wasn’t done running. Drake had to cover the ensuing kickoff and block for a punt return a few plays later.
So yeah, he was tired after the game. When the locker room doors opened to reporters, Drake sunk into his stall, head in his hands.
He felt terrible, he told the assembled press, before walking outside. Why? He had to puke.
“I didn’t have a lot more in the tank when I got to the end zone,” Drake said. “I’m paying for right now, because, whew, I had to go blow a few chunks outside. I couldn’t catch my breath for the longest. Now I feel a lot better.”
So do the Dolphins.
At 4-4, their season has been reset at the midway point. And they have their rising young stars to thank.