On Wednesday the Miami Dolphins coaching staff dedicated the team in no small part to improving the running game. Head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea scripted four run periods during the two-hour padded practice -- perhaps twice as much run work as some practices.
By all accounts the session was physical. Demanding. Tough.
And it was meant to both acknowledge problems and improve an issue because Miami’s running game is 32nd in the NFL in rushing average and 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game.
So Flores was fired up about getting this right and getting this fixed.
“Well we’ve got four periods of run,” Flores announced. “We’ll be working the run game today. That’s really the only thing you can do. You can talk about numbers, you can talk about stats, you can talk about this or that. At the end of the day, we’ve got to go out there and practice it better, execute it better, and that’s the only way I know to get it better.
“I hear the stats. I know what they are; but we still have to go out there and try to string some good runs together from an o-line standpoint, from a play-call standpoint, from a running the football standpoint. We’re just going to work at it and hopefully it improves.”
This suggested there’s urgency about this issue, which is smart because the Dolphins now are without starting running back Mark Walton, who was suspended four games by the NFL for violating the league’s conduct and substance abuse policy, and without Kenyan Drake who was traded last week to Arizona.
That twin elimination of the team’s top two running backs has thrust Kalen Ballage into the starting job now and for the foreseeable future. So Ballage, who was the starter to begin training camp but eventually lost that job in the regular season, must see this as a renewed opportunity, right?
“I’ll be the one out there so, yeah, you can say that,” Ballage said Wednesday.
This is Ballage’s chance to prove himself to coaches who had high expectations for him at the start of this, his second NFL season. This is his chance to prove his poor start to this season was not really what he’s about, right?
“I’ve got nothing to prove,” Ballage said. “I just want to go win a football game. That’s it.”
And this is where suddenly that urgency that the head coach seemed to have Wednesday morning didn’t seem shared by the player who must translate that urgency to the field.
Also, Ballage is wrong.
Because he has, in fact, proven zero as a Miami Dolphins running back.
And he has, in fact, everything to prove.
Consider the facts: Ballage has run the football a grand total of 71 times for the Dolphins since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. And out of that number, only one shines.
Ballage had one 75-yard TD run against Minnesota last December in a 41-17 loss. That’s it.
Everything else has been unremarkable. This year, through eight games and 35 carries, Ballage has gained 70 yards. So he’s averaging 2.0 yards per carry and has yet to equal in eight games the yardage he gained on that one fateful run he had last year in a blowout loss.
But nothing to prove.
Ballage, in fact, thinks he’s played “alright” so far this season despite the fact he was passed by Walton -- who made the team after getting a tryout in rookie camp -- as the team’s starter.
“I think I’ve played alright,” Ballage said. “The opportunities have been slim, so you can only do so much with that. But moving forward, you know, it’s about getting in there and getting a rhythm and being able to touch the ball more so I’m excited about that.
“Some of you guys have been around when I have the consistent opportunity, see what kind of player I can be. So, you know, at the end of the day I’m focused on getting a win and hopefully I’ll be a big part of that.”
My guess is Ballage believes the more opportunities he gets, the better he’ll be. The problem with that under normal circumstances is most players who have not proven anything have to produce fairly quickly to earn more opportunities.
And if they don’t produce, they get replaced. Teams move on to someone else.
Luckily for Ballage, the Drake trade and Walton suspension has limited the Dolphins’ ability to move on to someone else this week. They could turn to rookies Patrick Laird or Myles Gaskin but that trigger is not likely to be pulled as quickly for them as it would if Walton and Drake were around.
So it’s on Ballage and everyone else involved in the running game to, well, do something fellas.
“We all have to be better,” Flores said. “I have to be better, the backs have to be better, the quarterbacks have to be better, from a ball-handling standpoint to checking into the right run to the o-line has to block it better, to finishing our blocks, to the receivers finishing their blocks.
“Everybody is involved. We can’t put it on one person. If we want to put it on the backs, I think we shouldn’t do that. I think everyone is involved in the run game – backs, tight ends, receivers ... Everyone is involved, myself included. I’m not going to put it on one person.”
Back to Ballage for a moment: He wants you to know some of his struggles this year, specifically against the Washington Redskins Oct. 13, happened because he wasn’t 100 percent healthy but he’ll be ready for a heavy workload Sunday.
“...The Redskins game I had the workload and then unfortunately I kind of tweaked my foot during the week and didn’t get to play much on Sunday,” he said. “But I’m used to it. I’m ready for it.”