Training camp is over for the Miami Dolphins and that marks something of a milestone because it signals the team will soon be in regular-season mode. And as the club flies to Dallas-Fort Worth this afternoon and a date with the Cowboys Friday evening, I think it's important to see what is going on with the running back situation.
There is news here in that Arian Foster is going to play at least a little bit against the Cowboys.
And you've been hearing mostly good things about the running back, indeed most of the running backs, from Adam Gase. The coach has said he loves the way Jay Ajayi gets down hill. He has spoken glowingly about how smart Foster is and how quickly he's caught on and gotten a feel for the blocking.
"I feel like it’s something that I didn’t really know about him," Gase said. "Him coming in, in training camp, not being here in the spring, and how fast he picked it up, I guess I wasn’t anticipating that. But then you think, veteran player.
"I remember being around him in the Pro Bowl and just talking to him and being like, ‘Man, this guy is really sharp.’ When we got him in here, I felt like by the time he came off PUP, he knew what to do. He’s probably one of the guys that we have the fewest amount of mental issues (with). It’s really, for him, just fine tuning some of the details of what we are looking for. He’s done a great job. He’s great when we meet as an offense as far as the skill guys and go through routes and talk about things that happened in practice. You can see when you tell him something, it’s like locked in there and you don’t get that same mistake again."
Then there's rookie Kenyon Drake and third-year player Damien Williams.
Williams has gotten kudos from the coaching staff lately and is an arrow-up guy right now.
But Drake is disappointing at this stage. He is going to miss his second preseason game Friday after missing the opener in New York because he has a hamstring injury. He has been rehabbing hard to get back and that might happen next week. But he has missed a good bit of time.
And that, fundamentally, is the issue with this running backs corps.
It's not about smarts. Or experience. Or explosion. Or ability to get downhill and be physical with this group. None of that will determine the success or failure of this group.
The thing that will determine whether this is a thumbs up or thumbs down group is how and whether they can stay healthy. That's it. Period.
That's the way it is because in bringing this group together, the Dolphins have crammed a huge injury history into one backfield. All the players who are likely to be on the team have extensive injury histories.
Foster, coming back after rupturing an Achilles' tendon last season, has such an extensive injury history that the owner of his former team in Houston, Bob McNair, last year said simply that Foster was prone to soft tissue issues. So there was no surprise when despite how good Foster has been when he's healthy, the Texans went another direction.
Ajayi, who missed the first half of 2015 recovering from cracked ribs while on injured reserve with designation to return, also dealt with elbow and hamstring issues last year.
Drake, the team's third-round draft pick, suffered a dislocated ankle (ouch!), broken arm, concussion, quad contusion, sprained ankle and cracked ribs during his time at the University of Alabama.
So the three guys most likely to be part of the team's backfield come with injury histories. And then, not coincidentally, all of those guys with injury histories have missed time this training camp because of, you guessed it, injuries.
Interestingly, Foster, who has the most extensive NFL use and injury history, has been healthiest in camp. He started training camp on the sideline because he was on the physically unable to perform list. Days later he passed his conditioning test -- "annihilated it," Gase said -- but the team has been careful to keep Foster healthy because of his history.
He didn't play in the preseason opener. He wasn't taking team drills for a while. He was limited for a while. Gase even considered not playing him against the Cowboys before changing his mind, in part because Foster said he needed it.
"I need some this year," Foster said. "It’s been a while since I’ve been hit. Not in training camp but it’s different. In games, it’s different. You want to get that feel of getting hit week in and week out again."
Ajayi, who came to the Dolphins with a history of a bone on bone situation on one of his knees, missed some days this camp with a bone bruise on the other knee.
And did I mention Drake hasn't practiced in a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury? He also had a hamstring injury in the offseason after he was drafted.
So the Dolphins have a M.A.S.H. unit in the backfield.
The talent in their running back stable is not in question. The question is whether or how often the horses will pull up lame.
By the way, I didn't include Williams among the walking wounded because he's been healthy the past couple of weeks. But, yeah, he started camp on the physically unable to perform list because he had a hamstring injury.