During last season’s training camp there was little evidence that the Ravens had a capable backup to Ray Rice.
Earlier in 2012, Ricky Williams decided that he had had enough of football and opted to forgo the remaining year on his two-year contract. The candidates to fill his shoes as the “two” in the 1-2 punch at running back were Damian Berry, Anthony Allen, Bobby Rainey and 2012 third-round pick Bernard Pierce.
Pierce left the collegiate ranks with a year of eligibility remaining. The Ravens thought enough of Pierce to sacrifice the 91st and 164th overall picks and move up seven spots in the third round to select the Temple Owl.
Pierce was hardly impressive during training camp. In fact, he spent far more time in the trainer’s room than he did on the practice field. Eyebrows were raised and doubts surrounding his durability and toughness began to surface.
Berry was inconsistent during camp and failed to contribute much on special teams. Allen looked lost. Only Rainey stepped up to make an impact. He quickly became a fan favorite after an impressive preseason and a coach’s favorite due to his overall hustle and outstanding work ethic.
But No. 2 backs are supposed to be change-of-pace – they are supposed to have a different style than the back they temporarily replace on the field. Rainey, nearly from the moment he stepped on the field was dubbed, “a poor man’s Ray Rice”.
Veteran names like Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant began to surface as possible replacements. But those possibilities proved to be pure media and fan conjecture. Within the Ravens’ inner circle, no one was worried about the back up to Ray Rice.
And we all found out why.
Pierce had an excellent rookie campaign with 532 regular season rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards on 108 carries. He really made his mark after the departure of Cam Cameron. Beginning with the regular season home finale against the defending champion New York Giants and right on through the Super Bowl, the rookie back carried the ball 75 times for 414 yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. In 77 total touches Pierce did not fumble.
Comparatively speaking Ray Rice had 111 carries during that same stretch of post-Cameron games for 418 yards, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Rice also coughed it up 3 times in the post season. Over the course of Rice’s career he fumbles every 40 touches in the postseason compared to every 218 touches during the regular season.
This isn’t meant to be an indictment of Ray Rice. He’s an exceptional player, a leader and he is uncommonly giving of his time and resources to the community. That said, it does raise questions about the worthiness of an expensive long-term investment in a running back, particularly when there’s a Bernard Pierce waiting in the wings.
Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, an accomplished NFL RB himself who has coached the likes of Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and three-time Pro Bowler Steven Jackson while a member of the St. Louis Rams staff, shared this with USA Today’s Robert Klemko during Super Bowl XLVII week.
“Pierce is my dark horse. A year from now, everybody is going to want to know who he is. Right now, he’s the poor man’s Adrian Peterson.”
That’s high praise from someone who has played the game at a high level and has coached superior talents.
And as Pierce continues to develop and the grueling wear and tear of an NFL running back begins to manifest itself in the body of Ray Rice, questions will surface about the fiscal soundness of Rice’s contract in a salary cap world that will remain flat over the course of the next two seasons.
This potential problem becomes even more exacerbated if at some point the Ravens can’t afford Pierce, or still worse, quarterback Joe Flacco.
Unfortunately, that’s the price teams pay these days for doing well on draft day while governed by the blade of the salary cap.