In this new Hard Rock Stadium era of the Dolphins, second-year running back Jay Ajayi had been one of the first to inhabit the Hard Rock doghouse.
At the core of the issue for Ajayi was his confidence. And when it appeared the Dolphins didn’t quite share his thoughts as to what his role on the team should be, there were problems.
On Sunday, Ajayi — in his second game back since coach Adam Gase didn’t allow him to make the trip to Seattle for the season opener — his first game-winning overtime touchdown since a second-round playoff game in his junior year at Frisco Liberty High in Texas.
“I believe in myself,” said Ajayi, who scored on an 11-yard run off left tackle with 8:26 left in overtime on Sunday, giving the Dolphins a 30-24 win over the Cleveland Browns.
“Whenever my number is called, I want to be able to showcase the God-given ability.”
Ajayi’s number hasn’t been called much this year.
The second-year running back from Boise State had appeared to be in line to become the Dolphins’ starter this year, replacing Lamar Miller, who left as a free agent.
But then the Dolphins signed Arian Foster, and suddenly Ajayi wasn’t the feature back he had envisioned.
After Ajayi carried just three times in Miami’s exhibition finale, including a lost fumble, Gase had seen enough. Gase left Ajayi off Miami’s travel roster for the season opener at Seattle.
Ajayi said that was a turning point for him.
“When I wasn’t able to be with the team,” he said, “I was able to decide what I wanted my career to be.”
Since then, Ajayi has slowly worked his way back into a role on the team.
Ajayi didn’t do much in last week’s loss against the Patriots, getting 14 yards on five carries. And he was mostly silent Sunday through the first four quarters (six carries, 17 yards).
But everything changed in overtime.
After a Matt Darr punt pinned Cleveland back at its own 9-yard line, the Dolphins got a stop. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill took over at the Browns’ 44, handing off to Ajayi for 1 yard, and then connecting with Jarvis Landry for a 32-yard completion.
Tannehill made the throw despite taking a heavy hit, and his resilience, and Landry’s speed and elusiveness, set the Dolphins up at Cleveland’s 11.
Ajayi scored on the next play on an “outside zone” read, giving him instant redemption.
“I had a tough couple of weeks at the beginning of the season,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in myself and the kind of player that I want to be.”
Landry said Ajayi’s teammates never lost faith in him.
“This is something we knew Jay could do, given the opportunity,” Landry said. “When he and [rookie running back Kenyan] Drake got opportunities, they made plays for us.”
Still, the running game is an issue for Miami. With the injury-prone Foster out due to a groin issue, the Dolphins used four running backs — Ajayi, Drake, Damien Williams and Isaiah Pead — on Sunday.
The Dolphins ran 25 times for 115 yards, and a 4.6 average, including two runs by Landry and one by Tannehill.
“This whole week, we knew we were all going to have to ball — from Damien, Drake, Pead, me — we all did our thing,” Ajayi said, referring to the Dolphins adjusting to Foster’s injury.
“When it came down to overtime and that last drive, it was about being consistent, holding on to the ball. To score that walk-off game-winner is the greatest feeling in the world.”