A better debut with Eagles? Jay Ajayi couldn't have asked for one | Mike Sielski
Five days after he was acquired from the Dolphins, the tailback rushed for 77 yards, ripping off a 46-yard touchdown. And he's only started learning the playbook.
The Eagles officially announced the acquisition of Jay Ajayi, in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, at 8:35 a.m. Tuesday, and the long nights for him began soon after – after-hour study sessions with Duce Staley, the team's running backs coach. The tutorials were designed not to have Ajayi memorize the entire playbook in time for Sunday's game against the Broncos, but to have him learn some simple, specific formations and calls that would be easier for him to master over just five days of preparation. Get him a few plays. Get him acclimated. Don't ask him to do too much in his debut.
Yeah … so things didn't go exactly according to plan.
"I don't think it could have been written any better than that," Ajayi said after the Eagles' 51-23 rout of the Broncos. He had rushed for 77 yards, including a stunning 46-yard sprint for a touchdown, on just eight carries. The crowd of media members who wanted to talk to him afterward reached him so quickly that he remained seated at his locker while he answered questions. He barely had room to stand even if he had wanted to.
"It's impressive," quarterback Carson Wentz said. "Hats off to him. He came in with a he-wanted-to-work attitude right away. That was great to see. Great communication – he fits in with the locker room well. Like I said, he's a smart kid, so he's picked up on things pretty quickly."
"I actually started him on my fantasy [team] today," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "So I was definitely excited about that touchdown."
Ajayi had arrived here amid a combination of optimism and caution. The Dolphins had traded him for a fourth-round pick, the decision couched in the cliched language that head coach Adam Gase wanted to send a message to his underachieving team. Saying goodbye to a back who rushed for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns last season would seem an odd vessel for message-sending, and there were whispers and anonymously sourced reports out of Miami that Ajayi put his carries and statistics ahead of the team's fortunes, that he was a me-first player, that the Dolphins feared his knees wouldn't hold up over the long term.
It would seem, at least for now, that the Eagles have created an environment in which Ajayi or any player wouldn't dare be so self-centered. They are rolling at 8-1, and on Sunday, the four running backs they used – Ajayi, Corey Clement, LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood – combined for 190 yards, three rushing touchdowns, and an average of 5.6 yards per carry. Early on, in fact, Ajayi helped the Eagles most by not carrying the football. Three times in the first half, Wentz relied on him as the decoy in a play-action or read-option fake. On one, Broncos defensive end Von Miller, reacting as if Ajayi would take a handoff, froze for a heartbeat, allowing Wentz enough time and space to loft a lovely 32-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery.
"If they were all keying on me, that's their fault," Ajayi said. "We took advantage of it."
Late in the second quarter, the Eagles dispensed with the decoy stuff, handing Ajayi the ball on three consecutive plays. He gained 2 yards, then gained 14 and a first down, then followed clear-out blocks from left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, right guard Brandon Brooks, and center Jason Kelce around left end and through an open lane toward the end zone, diving at the left pylon and stretching out the football to break the goal line's plane for his first touchdown of the season. "Turned around, have all those guys coming to celebrate, it was very special," he said. "It felt great. It made me feel very appreciated and welcomed, just excited to be able to do more things like that."
His knees looked OK on that play, and he said later that they felt just fine, and if he is whole and healthy, he can make running back, once a position of uncertainty for the Eagles, one of talent and depth. Clement seems to improve each week. Though Blount might yet see his role diminished as Ajayi's playing time increases, he didn't appear bothered by the prospect after Sunday's victory.
"I'm excited to have him here because I've been a fan of his all the way back to last year," Blount said. "He's a really good player and an exciting and dynamic player to watch."
After the crowd around his locker had cleared, Ajayi showered and dressed into street clothes, slinging a beige backpack over his shoulders. The Eagles' bye week couldn't come at a better time for him. He has to find a place to live. He has to study the rest of the playbook. He has a city to explore. As he began to leave, he motioned to a team employee.
"Which way?" Ajayi asked him.
"Where you want to get?" the official said.
"The parking lot."
The employee led him out of the locker room. The Eagles don't play again for two weeks. They don't have another game at Lincoln Financial Field for three weeks. Jay Ajayi will have plenty of time to learn the lay of the land at his new home stadium, and to learn some other important things, too.