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Five questions: San Francisco 49ers

Harbaugh AP

A tumultuous offseason has trickled into training camp, with guard Alex Boone holding out and underrated backup running back Kendall Hunter done for the year with a torn ACL.

Apart from the obvious questions regarding whether Boone will show and whether the 49ers will be able to replace Hunter’s contributions as a ball-carrier and blitzer-picker-upper, here are five questions that underpin the broader question of whether the Niners can kick in the door on which they’ve been knocking for the last three years.

1.  How much longer for Harbaugh?

Coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly wants to be paid like a guy who has won a Super Bowl even though, you know, he hasn’t.  That difference of opinion has lingered for more than a year, and Harbaugh is now a year and five months away from becoming a free agent.

Some believe that, unless a new contract is signed before the 2014 season ends, the end of the road will come after the coming season, with the 49ers allowing Harbaugh to leave or trading him to one of the six or seven franchises that inevitably will be hiring a new head coach.  (Those trade talks with the Browns from earlier this year won’t make the phone any less likely to ring.)

Plenty of other on-field and off-field issues have pushed the Harbaugh angle into the background.  It won’t stay in the background for a lot longer.

2.  Was Kaepernick underpaid, or overpaid?

Misguided reports based on false characterizations of the Colin Kaepernick contract created the impression that Kaepernick’s package resides among the best in the league.  And that triggered a strong backlash when the true numbers emerged, showing that Kaepernick did a team-friendly deal that allows the 49ers to keep him for up to seven years at a reasonable rate or to dump him if they find a better option.

Lost in the debate over whether Kaepernick did a really good deal is whether he’s a really good quarterback.  After torching the Packers to start the 2013 season with 412 passing yards fueled by Harbaugh’s rope-a-dope complaints about the hits Kaepernick takes in the read-option, Kaepernick averaged 185 passing yards per game over the rest of the regular season.  In seven post-Packers games before the bye week, Kaepernick threw six total touchdown passes and five interceptions.

A strong postseason performance (but for a misfire pass to Michael Crabtree with the season on the line . . . again) renewed his reputation as one of the great young quarterbacks in the league.  That could change again once the 2014 season begins.

3.  Can Aldon Smith stay out of trouble?

With a likely suspension coming after getting 12 days on a work crew and three years of probation in response to no-contest pleas to weapons and DUI charges, Aldon Smith may not be adding to that 42-sacks-in-43-regular-season-games performance during the first few weeks of the 2014 campaign.  The number of additional sacks and games that he racks up as a 49er depends largely on whether he can stay out of trouble.

The 49ers considered not picking up the fifth-year option on his 2011 first-round contract, a potentially hollow gesture aimed at getting Smith’s attention.  If they don’t have it, Smith eventually will drop that last straw onto the camel, and Smith’s career in San Francisco will be over.

At which point someone else will give him a second chance, not because of humanitarian concerns but because he can play at a high level.  If/when it’s determined he’s no longer a difference-maker, he’ll be making a living in a different profession.

4.  How much longer can Gore carry the load?

Not surprisingly, veteran running back Frank Gore isn’t ready to yield to Father Time, who continues to be a muther when it comes to tailback longevity.  With Kendall Hunter done for the season, the Niners will need Gore to be able to do more, in the event that Marcus Lattimore can’t get healthy or Carlos Hyde can’t get ready.

Gore has shown no signs of slowing down despite an expectation for several years that the wheels will come off.  Maybe they won’t for Gore, at least not for the next few years.

5.  Who emerges as the top target in the passing game?

Two years ago, Harbaugh boasted that the team had five No. 1 receivers.  Today, only Michael Crabtree remains from that quintet.

After a rocky start in 2012, Vernon Davis has become a Kaepernick favorite, which has bolstered Vernon’s quest for a new contract.  Crabtree, who held out into the 2009 season as a rookie, enters a contract year of his own.  Anquan Boldin had a solid season after a salary-dispute trade from Baltimore.  Supplanted by Sammy Watkins, Stevie Johnson arrives via trade from Buffalo.  Brandon Lloyd returns, 11 years and five teams after he was drafted in San Francisco.

It’s a vastly underrated group of weapons for Colin Kaepernick.  If Tom Brady had that group, they’d already be engraving his name on the regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards.

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Jeff Fisher: Jared Goff will play when he’s ready

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff, left, and quarterback Case Keenum warm up prior to an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo) AP

Rams coach Jeff Fisher says quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, is not yet ready to take over as the team’s starting quarterback.

Asked about benching starter Case Keenum after Keenum’s four-interception game on Sunday, Fisher insisted that the loss wasn’t Keenum’s fault and it’s not time to make a change.

“Jared’s going to play when we feel Jared’s ready. Had we won this game you wouldn’t be asking about Jared,” Fisher said. “We didn’t lose this game because of the quarterback play. We lost it because of some other positions.”

There are two separate issues facing the Rams at the quarterback position: One is whether Keenum is playing well enough, and the other is whether Goff is ready to be a starter. What Fisher made clear is that he both thinks Keenum is playing well enough and thinks Goff still needs time before he’s ready to start.

Until Fisher’s opinion changes on both of those matters, Goff will remain on the bench.

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Frustrated Hue Jackson ditches headset to deal with defense

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 23:  Head Coach Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns instructs his players as they warm up prior to the start of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images) Getty Images

Browns coach Hue Jackson had enough. Enough losing, enough frustration, enough of Cincinnati’s offense ramming the ball down Cleveland’s throat on Sunday.

And so Jackson eventually ditched his headset and delegated the task of calling offensive plays to offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Jackson did it so that he could give the team’s struggling defense a piece of his mind.

I took them off,” Jackson said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I called the team out. Yeah, I was disappointed because I don’t want anybody running the ball like that on us. We’ve got to get some things squared away, but I take responsibility for it all. It’s not our players; we’ve got to fix some things and keep working on some things and we will.”

Meanwhile, Jackson will be subject to giving in to basic human emotions.

“I can get disappointed,” Jackson said. “I don’t like where we are as a football team, and this is my responsibility, so, at the end of the day in my mind, I have to find a way to fix it — and as fast as I can as best I can, so that’s what I have to do. . . . I keep telling you guys — I’m not discouraged. I’m disappointed in losing. I’ve never lost like this. But I’m going to find a way [to win], I promise you that. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I’m going to find a way and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

The Browns have nine more chances to get a win, with not many clear chances left on the schedule. The Jets, who come to town on Sunday, have the worst record of the team’s remaining foes, at 2-5. The remaining schedule also includes two games against Pittsburgh, another against Baltimore and Cincinnati, and contests against the Cowboys, Giants, Bills, and Chargers.

In other words, maybe Brian Billick shouldn’t have backed off.

But even if the Browns go 0-16, better times are coming. I promise you that. I just don’t know when and, for now, I don’t know how.

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Packers to put safety Chris Banjo on injured reserve

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 10: Cornerback Chris Banjo #32 of the Green Bay Packers scuffles with cornerback Deshazor Everett #22 of the Washington Redskins in the second quarter during the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at FedExField on January 10, 2016 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers are struggling to keep defensive backs on the field, and now another one is headed to injured reserve.

According to Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network, Packers safety Chris Banjo is going on IR.

Banjo apparently has a short-term injury, and might have been available in three or four weeks. But with a spate of other problems in the secondary, the team apparently decided it could not wait that long.

The Packers have recently put cornerback Sam Shields on IR, and Damarious Randall will miss some time after surgery to repair a groin injury so they needed the bodies.

Banjo, 26, has been a solid backup and special teams player, and will be a restricted free agent after this season.

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Dez Bryant practices Monday, Tyron Smith doesn’t

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 25:  Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on before a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears at AT&T Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Cowboys returned from their week off for a practice on Monday and it appears wide receiver Dez Bryant remains on track to make his return to the lineup after missing the last three games with a hairline fracture in his knee.

Bryant was on the field working with his teammates during Monday’s session and said last week that he feels ready for game action. The Cowboys don’t have to issue an injury report for Sunday’s game against the Eagles until Wednesday, but Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News reports that Bryant, who was limited in the team’s one bye week practice by a cut on his hand, was catching passes and running routes while the practice was open to the media.

Several other Cowboys who went into the bye week dealing with injuries returned to work, including cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive end DaMarcus Lawrence.

Left tackle Tyron Smith did not practice as he continues to deal with the back injury that kept him out of two games. Quarterback Tony Romo also has not been cleared for practice yet, leaving Dak Prescott to continue adding to the strong case he’s already made to hold onto the job.

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Jay Cutler cleared to return from thumb injury

Jay Cutler AP

The Bears just lost another quarterback to injury, but got one back Monday.

Bears coach John Fox told reporters that Jay Cutler has been cleared to return from his thumb injury, the week after they lost Brian Hoyer to a broken arm.

Cutler’s been out since Week Two, and during his absence, Fox was very careful to not promise the job back to the incumbent. But Fox was also careful to not discount the possibility. When he said “we don’t have a plan,” he wasn’t being difficult as much as he was acknowledging that until Cutler was well enough to return, it didn’t matter.

But Fox also described Cutler as “tough-minded” and “a good teammate,” during the absence, which is helpful since they don’t have much of a choice.

Hoyer’s out with a broken arm (he had surgery yesterday), the Bears at least have someone to go with Matt Barkley next week against the Vikings.

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Report: Jets believe Geno Smith tore his ACL

New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (7) is sacked by Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matt Judon (91) during the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) AP

It appears Jets quarterback Geno Smith has suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that the initial MRI of the knee that Smith injured on Sunday against the Ravens leaves the Jets with the belief that Smith suffered a torn ACL.

Smith exited the game in the second quarter after taking a sack from Ravens linebacker Matt Judon. He said after the game that he didn’t feel the injury was a significant one, but this is hardly the first time that we’ve seen a player get worse news than anticipated once further testing took place.

Assuming the diagnosis holds, Smith will miss the rest of the season and likely has played his final snap with the Jets with his contract expiring after the season. It’s a tough blow for Smith, who was in line to start last season before he suffered a broken jaw when then-teammate IK Enemkpali punched him in the jaw. Enemkpali also suffered a torn ACL this year, although Smith will likely look elsewhere for tips on how to rehab the injury.

Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Smith on Sunday and said he believes he should be the starter before anything was known about the severity of the injury. The Jets also have Bryce Petty and rookie Christian Hackenberg on hand, but may opt to go back to Fitzpatrick in hopes that he can show something closer to his 2015 performance than he did in the first six weeks of the year.


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Tom Brady is anti-domestic violence, but won’t compare to his suspension

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 23:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 23, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) Getty Images

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady goes to great lengths to say nothing.

And even in as safe a space as being against domestic violence, Brady isn’t going to allow himself to be dragged into revealing any opinions he may or may not have.

During his weekly appearance on WEEI, Brady expressed the requisite anger with Giants kicker Josh Brown, who admitted to years of abuse of his then-wife and has been placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, after an initial one-game suspension.

“I grew up with three sisters, I was very fortunate to learn from a loving father and a loving mother how to treat and respect women,” Brady said. “I have a daughter of my own and domestic violence is a horrible issue. It’s a tragedy when it happens. Any type of abuse or bullying of people who can’t defend or fight for themselves, I have no respect for that.

“Like I said, the NFL, they claim to take tough stances and this is their situation. This is their situation to deal with. I’ll let them deal with it. Like I said, I was very fortunate to grow up with sisters, a mother — I condone no part of that. That is absolutely something I would never be a part of or do. It’s a terrible tragedy.”

Of course, Brady was also punished by the NFL for something far less loathsome, and he was asked if it was frustrating that Brown could be suspended for one game while he was banished for four. And that’s when he grabbed the wheel tightly with both hands and steered straight for the middle of the road.

“I think it is the league’s issue,” Brady said. “Obviously, there is a lot of controversy with that. I’m trying to stay out of all that. I will let them handle it. I think that is their responsibility. I certainly don’t condone any part of domestic violence. I think it is a terrible, terrible thing. I think the league, they have to handle those types of things.”

“I’m just going to stay in my lane. Like I said, it’s up to them to decide whatever they want to do. I’m just going to try and stay out of any kind of my opinion. I certainly have opinions, I just don’t really care to share them.”

Say this for Brady, even though he has some preferences some may not care for, he’s non-expressing his non-opinions consistently.

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Report: Trent Williams avoided structural damage to knee

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 26: Trent Williams #71 of the Washington Redskins walks off the field at the end of the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 26, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Redskins lost a couple of key players to injuries during Sunday’s loss to the Lions with cornerback Josh Norman leaving due to a concussion and left tackle Trent Williams hurting his left knee.

Williams said after the game that he was in pain and had an MRI scheduled for Monday to determine the extent of the injury. It sounds like the results of that test brought some good news.

Mike Jones of the Washington Post reports that the test showed no structural damage to Williams’ knee. As a result, there’s hope that he will be able to play against the Bengals in London in Week Eight as the Redskins try to get back on track after their four-game winning streak came to an end.

The likelihood of that won’t be known until we’re a bit deeper into the week, something that will also be true of Norman’s progress through the concussion protocol.

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Report: Josh Brown won’t appeal placement on Commissioner’s-Exempt list

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 22: Josh Brown #3 of the New York Giants watches his overtime game winning filed goal to beat the Detroit Lions 23-20 with Steve Weatherford #5 while playing the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on December 22, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) Getty Images

Legal battles still may come in the case of Giants kicker Josh Brown. Whether the league properly placed Brown on the Commisioner’s-Exempt list won’t be one of the fights.

Brown won’t be appealing the designation, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.

It’s a smart move, given that the league’s ability to use the Commissioner’s-Exempt list in Personal Conduct Policy cases has been previously upheld via arbitration. Also, Brown is still getting paid; if he fights his current status and forces his way to the active roster, he invites a possible termination of his contract by the Giants.

The Giants could still cut him, in theory. The NFL recently confirmed to PFT that placement on the Commissioner’s-Exempt list does not insulate a player from being released. But the Giants could face a grievance if they impose what would amount to a second punishment for his off-field misconduct, in the same way the Ravens did two years ago after cutting Ray Rice.

Although the NFL is currently investigating separate allegations of wrongdoing about which the league didn’t actually know, Brown can argue that the NFL and/or the Giants should have known, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, all information about his off-field behavior before imposing a one-game suspension, if/when other action against him is taken.

Regardless, Brown realizes that he can’t force his way onto the field, and that at this point the only real question is whether and to what extent he’ll be paid. With the Giants still paying him while he’s on the Commissioner’s-Exempt list, there was no reason to upset the proverbial applecart by filing an appeal.

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Panthers getting healthier at cornerback

CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 26:  James Bradberry #24 of the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on August 26, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers hoped to get healthier over their bye week and things appear to have played out that way in the secondary.

The team returned to work on Monday and Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer reports that cornerbacks James Bradberry and Robert McClain were both back on the field with the team. Bradberry started the first four games of the season, but the 2016 second-round pick missed the last two games with a toe injury. McClain missed Week Six with a hamstring injury, leaving the team with a shortage of healthy cornerbacks.

That number got even lower when Daryl Worley suffered a concussion against the Saints. The play of the cornerback group has been an issue for the Panthers all season so the return to health for Bradberry and McClain doesn’t guarantee improvement, but it should at least improve the chances that progress can take place in the coming weeks.

The Panthers also had Leonard Johnson on the field. Johnson has been on the non-football injury list due to a torn Achilles and could provide more help for the struggling group if he gets the green light for game action.

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Cardinals fear Jaron Brown suffered torn ACL

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 17:  Wide receiver Jaron Brown #13 of the Arizona Cardinals is helped off the field during the fourth quarter of the NFL game against the New York Jets at University of Phoenix Stadium on October 17, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Cardinals came out of last night’s game without a win or a loss, at least on the score sheet.

But they’re now down another receiver.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, initial tests showed that wide receiver Jaron Brown suffered a torn ACL last night.

He’s having more tests to confirm the severity today (presumably an MRI).

Brown left last night’s game in the first half, and didn’t return. They were already playing without John Brown (hamstrings, sickle cell trait), leaving them thin at receiver.

Now they’ll need J.J. Nelson to step into a more prominent role, as they prepare for a game against the Panthers (who are actually getting healthier in the secondary at the moment).

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Damarious Randall to miss more time after surgery over the weekend

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Allen Robinson #15 of the Jacksonville Jaguars attempts to catch a pass against  Damarious Randall #23 of the Green Bay Packers during a game  at EverBank Field on September 11, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers placed cornerback Sam Shields on injured reserve last week, which leaves him unavailable through at least Week 14, and another member of the position group will be out for multiple weeks as well.

Rob Demovsky of reports that Damarious Randall had surgery over the weekend after missing most of the last three games. Demovsky reports that Randall, who was listed with a groin injury, went to see core muscle specialist Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia for the surgery.

Randall is expected back this season, but it will be a few weeks before it will be time to start thinking about his return to the lineup.

Quinten Rollins has also missed the last two games with a groin injury, so the Packers have been short on cornerbacks for a while. Ladarius Gunter and Demetri Goodson started in last week’s victory over the Bears and should continue to see plenty of playing time as the team waits for the healthy return of their other cornerbacks.

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Eagles lose starting cornerback Ron Brooks for season

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 23:  Ron Brooks #33 of the Philadelphia Eagles is carted off the field with a leg injury during the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings during a NFL game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 23, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Vikings 21-10. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Eagles’ defense suffered a big blow in Sunday’s win over the Vikings.

Ron Brooks, a starting cornerback, is done for the season after he ruptured his right quadriceps tendon during the game. Eagles coach Doug Pederson confirmed that Brooks is out for the year today.

Brooks arrived as a free agent this year from Buffalo, where he had also played for Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Brooks has started five games this year on defense and also plays on special teams.

The Eagles will likely have safety Malcolm Jenkins play more slot cornerback to fill in for Brooks, while Jaylen Watkins will get more playing time at safety.

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Eli Apple on mom’s outspokenness: “I was like godd–n”

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 11:  Eli Apple #24 and Romeo Okwara #78 of the New York Giants take the field prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

Eli Apple loves his mother and understands she’s outspoken.

But he also wanted to make it clear he’s just over here doing his job.

After his mother Annie Apple blasted Giants owner John Mara for comments regarding kicker Josh Brown’s admission of abuse, and then doubled down with a column about her history of being abused, the rookie cornerback had the same reaction many others did.

“How are you a so-called champion of domestic violence but lack basic compassion for a victim?” Annie Apple wrote. “Yes, this man signs my son’s checks as I’ve been reminded on Twitter. Mr. Mara owns the New York Giants. He doesn’t own Annie Apple. Wrong is wrong. And Mr. Mara’s comments were unapologetically wrong and hit at a raw place.”

I was like, ‘godd–n,’” Apple said, via Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News. “But she’s her own person. She’s gonna do whatever she wants to do. She’s gonna talk about this. I’ve just got to understand that. It’s cool.

“My mom’s very vocal and that topic is very important to her, so I can understand where she was coming from. But at the same time in my position I just have to do my part and play football and do what I can do.”

Apple said he’s had conversations with the Giants organization about the topic.

“I’ll be good on that front,” Eli Apple said. “I talked to them, let them know my mom, her reactions like that sometimes are like that, she’s her own person, she’s gonna do that, so I’ve just got to do my job. I just made sure I talked to everybody, man, just let them know, whoever is concerned. . . .

“She has a voice, she has a voice and she’s gonna use it no matter. I love her for that. She’s a unique woman and she’s always gonna speak up no matter what and I can’t really control that. I’ve just got to play football, . . . I tried to (talk to her). She’s a little upset at everybody right now, so I’m probably gonna give her her space a little bit.”

It’s an unusual position for the son to have to be in, to be discussing the words of his mother. But from the moment she agreed to step into the spotlight, it was also a little inevitable.

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Adam Gase credits Jay Ajayi’s comeback from “10 bad days”

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 23:  Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins rushes during a game against the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

At the start of the season, Dolphins coach Adam Gase was so down on running back Jay Ajayi that Gase left Ajayi home for the team’s Week One trip to Seattle. A whole lot has changed since then.

On Sunday, Ajayi became just the fourth player in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards in back-to-back games, and Gase said today on PFT Live that Ajayi’s success has been all about improving his work ethic. Gase said that the team had some issues with Ajayi between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season, but those issues are all in the past.

“He had 10 bad days there from the fourth preseason game to the first game, but he’s been great every day besides having that little rough spot,” Gase said. “He’s done a great job grabbing this thing and taking advantage of it, and he’s done everything we needed him to do.”

Gase said he could tell as soon as the Dolphins returned from Seattle that Ajayi was committed to having a positive impact on the team this year.

“When we got back for that next week, he was great in the meetings, he practiced hard, he did everything we asked him to do,” Gase said. “And that’s why he’s in this position.”

It was less than two months ago that the Dolphins didn’t even think Ajayi was one of the 46 players they wanted on the field for Week One. Now Ajayi looks like one of the best running backs in the NFL.

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