Eight months ago, wait, eight days ago, anyone studying the Miami Dolphins roster could plausibly believe this team had young up-and-coming playmakers at running back and wide receiver because Jay Ajayi and DeVante Parker are on the team.
Parker, a first-round pick, seemed on the doorstep of a breakout year after finishing his rookie season with a flurry.
That’s how it is when you catch 22 passes for 445 yards, average 20.2 yards a catch in December and January, and score three touchdowns in six games. There are going to be high expectations if not big demands from everyone the following season.
Ajayi, a fifth-round pick a year ago, was interim coach Dan Campbell’s favorite running back by the time 2015 ended. Campbell loved Ajayi’s toughness. and when the Dolphins let Lamar Miller go in free agency, new coach Adam Gase often praised his new starting running back as well.
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Ajayi was Miami’s starting running back during the offseason conditioning program, through offseason workouts, during minicamps and through much of training camp.
Arian Foster, you’ll recall, was a late signing and came with a handle-with-care label. So the Dolphins expected to lean on Ajayi and use Foster and his great ability in smaller increments so as to keep him healthy — an issue for Foster in the past.
So there were grand plans for both DeVante Parker and Jay Ajayi until maybe two weeks ago.
And then the plans collapsed.
Parker, too often injured and rarely practicing, was becoming a living china doll. He missed part of the offseason with a hamstring issue. Then missed part of training camp with hamstring issues. Then missed the regular season opener with hamstring issues.
That’s nearly four months of hamstring issues. And what the team learned about Parker as everyone sought to resolve those issues — that Parker wasn’t hydrating or eating right and perhaps wasn’t trying hard enough in practice so as to acclimate his muscles to stress before real games began — was troubling.
The troubles with Ajayi began toward the end of the preseason when it became clear Foster had won the starting running back job. Ajayi wasn’t happy about that.
Then he was asked to play in the preseason finale, which is a game veterans and important players typically aren’t asked to play. Ajayi wasn’t too happy about that, either.
And then he played terrible in that game. Gase wasn’t happy about that.
And then Ajayi realized he wasn’t much in the game plan for the season opener, not even as a reserve. And he wasn’t happy about that.
All this simmering unhappiness boiled over last week when Ajayi did something in the building — away from the football field — that made a lot of people upset. I have no idea what he did, but Gase decided to leave him home from the trip to Seattle and the regular-season opener as a result.
This issue, I’m told, had to do with a lack of maturity and professionalism. And Gase meant to send Ajayi a message that he needed to improve in these areas.
And so here we are, one day from the first divisional game of the season, and the Dolphins are hoping both these young men who were supposed to so vital to the team’s 2016 success somehow figure it all out. And soon.
Gase believes Ajayi is indeed figuring things out.
“I think he has been really good,” Gase said about the player’s work this week. “He has been really engaged in meetings. I know he has done a great job … He has done a very good job at practice. We’re heading in the right direction in that area.”
Good. But in the area of showing maturity and professionalism, Ajayi still has bad moments. One such moment came Friday when he was asked to speak to reporters.
He had been ducking questions for over a week so the Dolphins basically made him talk. And when he was asked his thoughts about being left home last week he said: “My focus right now is helping the team win and being on the field for New England.”
And when he was asked nine more questions, such as whether he is ready to play special teams, and whether he had a good week of practice, Ajayi delivered practically the exact same rehearsed answer.
Over. And over. And over again.
It was like a Marshawn Lynch “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” episode. Except this isn’t the Super Bowl. And Ajayi is most definitely not Lynch.
Those two minutes seconds served as an uncomfortable glimpse into Ajayi’s apparent frustration and lack of maturity.
Parker is a different story. His issue, like Ajayi’s, is seemingly related to immaturity. But Parker’s is a more benign form of youthful irresponsibility. He needs to learn to treat his body right. He needs to learn when he’s hurting (which he should be able to play through) and when he’s injured (which is the time to sit).
Parker needs to learn to toughen up, and the lesson needs to begin Sunday when he is expected to make his 2016 debut against the Patriots.
“I’m very eager to get out there,” Parker said. “It’s been a long time. It’s been a minute since I’ve been out there. I’m just ready for whenever it’s time for me to get out there and play.”
That better be true for both Parker and Ajayi.