Dolphins' Jay Ajayi: Week 1 benching 'made me who I am'

Jay Ajayi said being left home for Miami's opener last season both lit a fire under him and improved the running back's relationship with Dolphins coach Adam Gase. Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

DAVIE, Fla. -- There's a lot of good to rehash about the season Jay Ajayi had for the Miami Dolphins in 2016, but it's worth going all the way back to the bad beginning if you really want to understand why it might be sustainable.

Remember? All the way back in Week 1, when first-time head coach Adam Gase decided to leave Ajayi home for the team's season-opening road trip to Seattle because of the way Ajayi was handling a reduced role behind veteran Arian Foster? It might not be Ajayi's favorite 2016 memory (certainly it trails his three 200-yard games), but it's an important one.

"Week 1 made me who I am," Ajayi said after Dolphins practice Friday. "It happened, and it kind of, I would say, maybe set a fire. Or just kind of reset in my mind, 'OK, what do you want to do?'"

As the season wore on and Ajayi racked up 1,155 yards in the Dolphins' final 11 regular-season games, this looked like a bit of coaching genius on the part of Gase. But the young coach says he'd probably handle things differently if he had it to do again.

"I think I would have changed a couple of things," Gase said. "We probably would have had the same result, but ... I was very aggressive as far as how I handled the situation. It is what it is. We've both talked about it, both learned from it, and there's a really good mutual respect there where we both understand, 'Hey, I could have handled my end better, you could have handled your end better,' but we ended up patching all of that stuff up and he did a great job of wiping that away and then coming back to work and doing a great job."

Gase said Ajayi "had been the starter almost from the spring on and we changed it up on him. He had a rough fourth preseason game, we made a change, and he didn’t handle it very well." Gase thought leaving him home for the Seattle game would send the right message. And even if it was a bit harsh, it seems to have done just that. But Ajayi says the relationship between player and coach is stronger for Gase having been honest with him when looking back.

"We definitely grew as the season went along, being able to get more comfortable with each other," Ajayi said. "He's a great coach who allows the communication from player to coach to be very open. Specifically with me and him, I think that we communicate very well, and he's not a guy who's hard to approach at all."

Can Ajayi do it again? The odds and the schedule sort of scream, "No," the question marks on the interior of the team's offensive line are real, and the fantasy community is skeptical. But Ajayi says nothing he did last season surprised him, and his goal this season is to be more involved in the Dolphins' passing game.

"Now, being in the offense a second year, I can really work on the details of knowing the landmarks of each route and just being consistent catching the ball," Ajayi said. "That and making sure I know all my protections and keeping the quarterback clean. Last year, I might not have been called upon as much in those situations, where now I've had an offseason and I want to strive to be the best. In my mind, I know I have the capabilities and the skill set to do it, and now it's just about going out and proving it on the field, and I'm getting opportunities from the coaches to get out there and run some of those plays where I can be more versatile and I'm making them count."

Will it translate into the season? Remains to be seen. But after how far he came from Week 1 last year, Ajayi isn't an easy guy to doubt.