Maybe Arian Foster isn’t back. Maybe he just never went away.
It was easy to forget about one of the top running backs of the past decade, one of the NFL’s best success stories as a former undrafted rookie after the way he fell apart in Houston. A career laden with injuries seemed at risk last season after the four-time Pro Bowl selection tore a groin muscle, came back and then tore an Achilles four games later.
He was released, only to sit on the free-agent market for four months until he was able to pass a physical. The Miami Dolphins signed him for what appeared to be a mid-summer experiment with a veteran after new head coach Adam Gase watched Lamar Miller leave in free agency and didn’t have the bodies to man his preferred multi-headed rushing attack.
But any doubt that Gase and the Dolphins actually believe in what the 30-year-old has left had to have been erased this past week. It was one thing to promote Foster to first string over exciting second-year running back Jay Ajayi. The depth chart didn’t tend to mean a lot in the second half of last season in Chicago, when Gase interchangeably used three running backs at his disposal.
But leaving Ajayi back in Miami for the team’s cross-country trek to Seattle for the season opener was a statement on another level. Gase, of all people, understands the difficulty it takes to beat the Seahawks, who wrecked his Denver offense in the Super Bowl in 2015 and then shut out theBears last season. And here he was, entering his head coaching debut with a 30-year-old injury-prone running back who just recovered from an Achilles tear, the guy nobody seemed to want until the middle of the summer.
Foster’s stat line from the Dolphins’ 12-10 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday wasn’t anything to get excited over. His 13 carries managed just 38 yards with no run going longer than 9 yards. The numbers probably weren’t ever going to be good in the first game behind a retooled offensive line and against a Seahawks defense that has finished in the top three of defensive rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in each of the past two seasons.
What was encouraging were the visuals. The first flash was a quick swing pass he caught uncovered and took 50 yards after he juked safety Earl Thomas nearly out of his cleats along the left sideline. A second was a stretch run he cut back to make Thomas fall again before he stiff-armed linebacker Bobby Wagner for an extra couple of yards. Thomas is a three-time First-Team All-Pro. Wagner has been to the Pro Bowl each of the past two years. They are 27 and 26 years old, respectively.
At least for one game following a very light preseason workload, Foster showed signs of being a lesser but still effective version of the Foster of old. His smooth running style and sticky hands were present again, even if they didn’t amount to enough production to dispel the fears. After averaging 4.5 yards per carry over his first six seasons, that mark has dropped to 2.6 over 76 carries the past two years. His offensive lines in Houston and so far in Miami have been poor, but at some point, a 30-year-old running back has to definitively show he hasn’t just lost a step.
The Dolphins are at least willing to give him that chance. Perhaps it’s a ploy to get Ajayi to conduct himself better. Maybe the plan is to ride him while he can stay healthy and then to let Ajayi and third-round scat back Kenyan Drake take over, much like how Gase had Matt Forte pass the torch to a rookie Jeremy Langford last season with the Bears. Either way, the Dolphins kept Foster and his now-guaranteed $1.5 million deal around for a reason.
For the here and now, they’ll roll with him and see what he can give, both as a leader and as a key cog in Gase’s plan to alleviate the pressure quarterback Ryan Tannehill places on himself. And as former tackles Jermon Bushrod and Laremy Tunsil continue to settle into their new starting guard posts and the Dolphins face defenses that aren’t as sound as Seattle’s, a more accurate picture will form of just what Foster can really still give.
Only time will tell how much time Foster has left in a game that continually punishes aging running backs. What’s at least clear is he hasn’t gone anywhere yet.