When is the juice worth the squeeze?
Don’t ask Adam Gase. After Monday, he might be switching to Sunny Delight.
Gase took the first big risk of the preseason Monday, dialing up a rare full-contact, tackle-to-the-ground practice.
Jay Ajayi, who’s as responsible as anyone for Gase’s 10-6 rookie NFL season, didn’t survive it. He left with a head injury, the severity of which was not made public Monday.
“Football season is back,” Andre Branch told a room full of journalists, when asked what practice sounded like.
It looked that way too.
Midway through the practice, Ajayi was spotted making the walk all players dread — head down, flanked by medical officials, on his way inside to be checked out.
Ajayi, who teammate Kenyan Drake said “was taking shots left and right,” was removed from practice after taking a hard hit from safety T.J. McDonald Monday. He did not return.
Doctors were still evaluating Ajayi for a possible concussion when Gase spoke with reporters. The Dolphins are off Tuesday, so an update on his status might not come until Wednesday.
“I'm pretty sure that he's going to be back, sooner rather than later,” Drake said, “so I'm praying for his recovery.”
Drake can’t be alone.
The Dolphins’ offense simply doesn’t work the same when Ajayi is not on the field. His combination of size and speed cannot be replaced, even if the team is bullish on his backups.
Ajayi rushed for 1,272 yards last year — some five times more than Drake and fellow backup Damien Williams managed combined.
“I feel like any one of our guys is ready to step up and take that responsibility,” Drake said. “Jay is a good player, but football's a very brutal sport. If someone goes down, it's always next man up.”
The next man up could be someone not even on the roster. The Dolphins are keeping tabs on both free agents — including 34-year-old DeAngelo Williams — and players that could later be cut by other teams as a way augment their depth chart.
Gase acknowledged that opened himself up to criticism by putting his players at risk Monday. But in his mind, the benefits outweighed the costs.
“I've been thinking about it for a while, since last spring,” Gase explained. “I think a lot of it had to do with, we had a lot of missed tackles last year, it really took us a while to get going in the run game and pass protection and [get] that sense of urgency.”
Gase added: “When you talk to some of the starting players and you can't even finish the sentence and they say, 'absolutely,' that's when you know it's a good thing.”
Defensive players who spoke to the media Monday proved Gase’s point.
Said rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan: “It's fun to finally get to tackle somebody instead of just running around.”
Added Branch: “When you're just jerseys, you can't simulate a game. When you put pads on, it's game-time.”
If anyone knows the risks of football, it’s Cameron Wake. The star pass rusher missed much of the 2015 season with a ruptured Achilles. And even he was on board with the plan.
“You play in pads, it's collisions, there's violence,” Wake said. “I think, for the most part, we found the balance.”
Drake, who was on the receiving end of some body blows too, said it was “reassuring” to get hit.
If Gase wanted to see fight from his team, he got his wish. There were a couple of minor shoving matches and one semi-brawl — offense vs. defense, with no apparent punches thrown.
“You get down and dirty sometimes,” said Drake, who needed to be pulled from the scrum. “It's football. It's a contact sport. You can't avoid contact at all times. [You] try to keep it on the practice field, off the game field, because you get flagged 15 yards in a game. Competitive juices kind of get going when everybody goes to the ground, so it happens every now and again.”
Injuries, as Ajayi’s long walk to the locker room reminded everyone Monday, are the same way.
Miami Herald sports writer Armando Salguero contributed to this report.