In a season marred by the disquieting failure of the run game, it been painful for Ravens fans to watch. However, it’s certainly been harder for none other than lead running back Ray Rice himself.
Rice has been nothing short of a superstar for Baltimore ever since he emerged from being a backup to Willie McGahee as a 2nd round pick from Rutgers to becoming one of the undisputed stars of the NFL at his position.
In his career (2008-2013), Rice has rushed for 5,809 yards, earning three Pro Bowls (2009, ’11 and ’12) along the way. In the 2009 playoffs Rice was a one-man wrecking ball to the New England Patriots, previously thought to be impenetrable in the playoffs in Foxborough. Not to Ray Rice, who ate them alive on the game’s first offensive play for an 83-yard touchdown and never looked back.
Certainly, in earning a Super Bowl ring, Rice helped along the way by the play he’s now best known for, a remarkable 4th-and-29 juke-and-jaunt spectacular against the San Diego Chargers to save a critical contest the Ravens were about to lose, which will never be forgotten in Rice’s lore.
But this season, the back is a shadow of his former self. Rice, despite the return of lead blocker Vonta Leach, can’t fool anyone. He’s arm tackled, he’s ankle tackled. He’s tipped over like a lawn flamingo.
As The Baltimore Sun’s Matt Vensel so aptly puts it, Rice looks like “a kid in a snowsuit” on the field. Yet the back doesn’t appear on any injury log, at least not regularly. But Rice doesn’t seem like the same guy.
“His health has been a factor,” said Harbaugh on the subject. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Rice unquestionably has been hurt by an offensive line that has been porous in whatever “porous” in a 5th grade science experiment might mean. It’s been pretty much a sieve due to a number of factors including a failed scheme change engineered by run game coordinator Juan Castillo, the aging/then trade of T Bryant McKinnie, and injuries to several players including G Kelechi Osemele, who is out for the season.
But those are ultimately excuses. Great backs can make plays regardless of how bad the line is, sometimes making their own luck.
Great backs can make plays out of nowhere that force opponents to respect the running game and then open up play-action, and then eventually a scheme that drops two safeties back and opens up lanes for a back to run through.
There’s no argument here that Rice is a great back, but he’s simply not this year. In fact, he’s pretty lousy this year, if numbers are the indicator.
So far in 2013, as ESPN’s Jamison Hensley points out, Rice is “the only NFL running back this season with at least 110 carries who doesn’t have a 20 yard run.”
Rice is averaging just 36.1 yards per game in the NFL, for 47th in the league. He averaged more than double that number from 2009-2012.
Rice, for his part, refuses to blame injuries. He told Garrett Downing of Ravens.com that “everybody has these situations. A down year is not going to break me as a person.”
Rice further tried to argue that opponents have been running pretty good defensive fronts against the team, and that if one were to “watch film” it would make sense.
The problem is that a lot of people around the league have been watching film, and it all looks bad for Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens. Defensive coordinators all over the league have been scheming to take out Torrey Smith and go after Joe Flacco, leaving the run game as an also-ran part of their game plan.
It’s not that complicated. If the Ravens can’t present a viable threat at the running game, why should any coordinator try to defend against it?
The other problem for the Ravens is that regardless how the season ends they are going to have some very difficult decisions to make about next season’s cap. And Rice may be the first big name to go, depending on how the team wants to address the situation.
Rice has a current $8.75 million cap hit in 2014, but if the Ravens were to cut him, then they would still be responsible for the remainder of his signing bonus, or another $6 million to be exact, in dead money. According to our own Brian McFarland, Rice’s cap numbers actually go down in the last two years of his contract. But he may not even last that long.
Rice, at 26, is starting to look at lot like Shaun Alexander, the former Seattle Seahawk star back who signed a $62 million contract after becoming league MVP in 2005. In 2006, Alexander broke his foot in game three, and was ineffective after his return, finishing with only 896 yards and seven touchdowns for the year.
He suffered more injury problems in 2007, and after 2008, was out of the league for good. He was only 31 – granted, five years older than Rice – but Alexander was a power back, where is Rice is a finesse back. Power backs, like Alexander, or Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis often tend to last longer, because their losing a step might still be OK in situational use, such as Bettis being primarily a short-yardage and goal-line back in his last year in the NFL.
Rice’s game is based on, being quick, ducking and dodging, and being a multi-purpose threat. Rice is at his best when other teams can’t find him – which works for another shorter back, Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks (5’8” for Rice and 5’11” for Lynch, respectively).
Rice may not be done, but he sure looks it now. He’s a star in the community as well as on the field, especially in the ever-so-important topic of bullying, and is also the spokesman in Baltimore for M&T Bank.
Rice is a guy who will be very tough for the Ravens to let go, and will be a huge cap hit, whether he stays or goes. Somewhere, the Ravens are probably hoping Ray can just find his game again and make all of this year’s struggles somehow go away.