When Jay Ajayi refers to himself in the third person, it’s as the “Jay Train.” The self-given nickname is his alter ego, a physical running back who uses emotion to power his performance.
But the Jay Train can’t get rolling unless it’s fed the football.
In the Eagles’ season-opening 18-12 victory over the Falcons on Thursday night, Ajayi was on the field for just nine plays before the half. He had three carries for 5 yards, while Darren Sproles, Corey Clement, and Wendell Smallwood played 18, three and one snap(s), respectively, and combined to rush for 6 yards on six tries.
Ajayi has been dealing with a foot problem over the last few weeks, and Doug Pederson said it played a role in the first-half snap distribution. But if there was a plan to limit his touches, the Eagles coach tossed it aside in the second half.
And the Jay Train got on track. Ajayi had 20 snaps to Sproles’ 11 and Clement’s 10, and rushed 12 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns – the second the game-winner — and converted a two-point attempt on the ground.
“I believe in what I can do as a back, and being a featured back, but at the same time, understanding that everyone in our room is special and can make big plays,” Ajayi said after the game. “Been learning to check the ego, just be ready when my number’s called.”
Pederson didn’t shy away from declaring Ajayi his “No. 1” tailback this offseason. The one-game sample is small, and the foot is still less than 100 percent, according to Ajayi. But even if he is the lead back, the likelihood that he’s the workhorse — in the traditional sense — is low.
“Touches going around, I still think it’s going to be a little bit by committee as we go,” Pederson said Monday, “and it keeps everybody fresh.”
Ajayi, like any competitor, wants as many carries as possible. He struggled to keep those feelings in check with the Dolphins, even when he averaged 21.7 touches before last season’s trade to the Eagles.
He was a dutiful soldier in Philadelphia, even though his touches dropped to 12.8 a game. Winning tends to solve most playing time problems. But Ajayi is in the last year of his rookie contract and hasn’t shied away from talking about cashing in after this season.
Early in training camp, he also declared himself the “forgotten” running back in the NFC East, in the shadow of the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley.
“I’m ready to showcase again to the world who I am as a running back,” he said then.
But Ajayi is unlikely to get as many touches as Elliott and Barkley, even if Pederson deemed him “kind of the workhorse” of the Eagles. He will be the “between the tackles … tough, physical” runner that LeGarrette Blount and Ryan Mathews were in Pederson’s first two seasons.
But Sproles and Clement are effective as a change of pace, and with variety a premium in the Eagles offense, Pederson is unlikely to rely on one running back for an extended period.
The coach did note that he has to account for Clement’s special-teams responsibilities when doling out snaps. The second-year running back is a four-core guy. And Sproles still returns punts. But both have proved themselves on offense, especially Sproles in third-down passing situations.
“Pretty much everybody has to get in,” Clement said. “Whoever has the hot hand is rolling. We’re not a selfish group at all.”
Sproles got the early nod on run downs, though. The 34-year old hadn’t played in a nearly year – he sat out the entire preseason — and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Pederson wanted to get him re-acclimated and to reward a leader who has already declared this his final season.
The coach is willing to sacrifice a little production if it plays well in the locker room. But Sproles and the offensive line struggled against the Falcons’ slanting front four.
“I felt like in the first half, I was trying to force some stuff,” Sproles said.
Pederson said that he made a concerted effort to get Ajayi more involved after the break, and to stick with the run game, despite the slow start. In his memoir, he said that the loss to the Chiefs in Week 2 last season taught him a lesson about getting away from the ground game, and from that point on he rarely strayed from staying balanced.
“I’ve just got to stay patient with the run game because it might look kind of ugly early,” Pederson said Friday. “But the more we get on track with our offensive line and fitting blocks and doing all that kind of stuff, the better it becomes throughout the game.”
The Eagles ran the ball half the time after the break (17 of 34 plays) even though they trailed at the start of the second half and again midway through the fourth quarter. On the game-winning drive, all three top tailbacks made key contributions.
Sproles’ came through the air. He converted third-and-8 when he broke a tackle after the catch and carried a defender over the marker. Clement broke loose into the secondary for a 21-yard scoot. And two plays later, Ajayi sealed the outcome with an 11-yard outside zone run into the end zone.
“I knew I would have a good day,” Ajayi said, “if I just stayed being myself and being the Jay Train.”
Will he get to toot his horn enough this season?