Ray Rice has bigger problems than his disappointing 2013. Than his 3.08 YPC. Than his total inability to resemble the bowling ball of fantasy glory he was from 2009-12.
Charged with third-degree aggravated assault, Rice stands accused of knocking his fiancée unconscious and dragging her through an Atlantic City casino in mid-February, just after Valentine’s Day. Despite the pair’s recent nuptials, Rice is staring at 3-5 years in the clink if convicted, and a suspension even if he’s not. Rice will likely strike a plea deal — both with the law and The Shield — but let’s keep proper perspective: What Rice has got going off the field is much more sinister than what happened on it last season. But whereas Rice’s personal life should be sorted out through due process and mediation, the same cannot be said for his football career.
What Went Wrong
Although Rice’s fall to the bottom of the leaderboard felt swift and dramatic, it could hardly be classified as out of nowhere. The caldera began forming in 2012, where Rice’s numbers fell across the board for a team that would eventually go on to win the Super Bowl. A career-high 2,068 yards from scrimmage in 2011 dropped to 1,621. His YPC swooned from 4.68 to 4.44, while his 1,143 yards on the ground were the fewest since he became a starter in 2009. After posting a 4.74 YPC across his first eight games, that number tumbled to 4.13 in Weeks 9-17. Things only got worse in the playoffs, where Rice managed just 3.64 yards per carry, losing three fumbles in four games. Taken alone, these numbers were hardly the signs of decline for a 25-year-old superstar. But digested in concert with Rice’s 2013, they look an awful lot like foreshadowing.
Not that anything could have predicted the depths to which Rice would plummet. 48 players qualified for the YPC crown last season. 44 of them beat Rice, who could best only Trent Richardson, Willis McGahee and teammate Bernard Pierce. The fact that Pierce was amongst Rice’s conquests points to something obvious: The Ravens’ run blocking was sub-par. By Pro Football Focus’ count, only five teams were worse. But Rice’s problems went beyond a lack of lanes, and while a crummy line can make a running back look bad, the reverse is also true. Rice averaged 3.08 yards per carry, a full 1.46 off his previous career mark. He had nearly as many fumbles (two) as touchdowns (four). He averaged more than three yards per carry just one out of three Sundays (five in 15). Rice had exactly one 100-yard rushing performance after averaging four from 2009-12.
Who did his 100-yard day come against? The Chicago Bears, who allowed 410 more yards on the ground than any other team, and permitted an astonishing 5.34 YPC. Rice’s 131 yards on a soggy afternoon in Chicago represented 19.84 percent of his season total. Seven days later, Rice faced one of the league’s best run defenses, the Jets. He rushed 16 times for 30 yards (1.87 YPC). Take away Rice’s big day against the Bears’ historically-bad unit, and he averaged 2.80 yards per carry, a number which would have dropped him beyond the likes of T-Rich and Pierce. That’s more than just his line letting him down. The question is, what was it?
At his best, Rice runs like a steel-reinforced bowling ball. A small man whose size belies his power. Not that he relies on power. Rice has the strength to treat tacklers like bowling pins, but prefers to zigzag through them. Imagine a bowling ball coming down the lane at freshly reset pins. There are two possible outcomes. 1. Some of the pins are knocked down. 2. Gutter ball. Only Rice created a third option: A ball that neither strikes nor scratches, but instead fits through the pins. This wouldn’t be a good quality for an actual bowling ball, but for a human one? It can make a career.
Sometime in the past two years, Rice stopped fitting through the pins. Where he once gained velocity as he barreled down the lane, Rice now appears to be running through molasses. The box scores will tell you Rice had 214 carries last season. The film will tell you he had one. That’s because every Rice rumble looked the same.
Rice’s career was built on burst and lateral agility. In 2013, the former was diminished while the latter was nonexistent. Although he’s not as explosive through the hole as he once was, Rice’s acceleration and footwork remained that of a lead NFL back. The problem is that, moving side to side, he looked like a fullback. So limited was Rice’s wiggle that he often appeared to be running with the world’s biggest cutting board on his back. It was as if he had a slab of granite tucked underneath his jersey.
It was painful to watch for a player who once set defenses ablaze with his jump cuts. What’s one thing that could limit a player’s lateral quickness? A hip injury. That’s what Rice suffered in Week 3. That wouldn’t explain Rice’s Weeks 1 and 2, however, where he rushed 25 times for only 72 yards (2.88 YPC). And though Rice was clearly limited in Week 4 after sitting out in Week 3, the Ravens deemed him healthy enough to carry the ball 27 times by Week 5. In Week 9, Rice told CBS’ Kevin Harlan he felt as healthy as he had all season. Rice’s injury had to play a part in his struggles. Superstars in their mid-20s don’t normally turn into lesser Mike Alstotts overnight. But as is the case with Rice’s offensive line, it’s clear his problems went beyond an early-season hip ailment.
That’s because even in Weeks 1 and 2, Rice was running with amazingly-little flexibility. Rice followed one path: A straight line. In his prime, Rice could turn straight lines into big gains, shedding linemen and juking linebackers. That was not the case in 2013, as his cuts lost their bite. Runs that used to go for 4-5 yards instead went for 1-2.
Rice seemed aware of his limitations. Whereas some runners never stop trying to get around the edge, Rice was allergic to bouncing outside. It meant he was stopped for a loss “only” 18 times, but he still ended up posting “no gain” on an additional 39 runs. Rice had countless 1-2 yard plods, and vanishingly-few long gains. Rice’s longest rush of the season, 47 yards, came against the Bears. He had no other 20-yard totes, managing more than 14 just three times all season.
Rice simply looked like a man out of gas. Like a runner who has carried the ball 2,531 times between college and the pros. Like the latest in a long line of backs who peaked early and declined sooner.
What Could Still Go Right
In the grand scheme of things, Rice is still a young man. At 27 years and three months, he’s younger than five of last season’s top 10 rushers. He’s younger than Lady Gaga. He’s younger than me (despite what my picture might tell you).
But youth is relative in the NFL, especially for running backs. Rice’s age is more accurately measured in carries, not years. Few men have been slammed between the tackles as much as Rice since he first reported for duty at Rutgers in 2005.
So if Rice is going to bounce back, it’s not going to be because of his birth certificate. It will be because he’s playing for a coordinator in Gary Kubiak who builds his offense around the run. Rice has also shed 15 pounds, and should have a healthy hip. Presumably, his offensive line will be better.
But there is no magic bullet. At 5-foot-8, Rice would be smaller than nearly all the backs Kubiak has featured. Going back to his days with Mike Shanahan in Denver, Kubiak has typically excelled with runners in 5-foot-11/6-foot-0 range. Pierce, as it happens, is 6-foot-0, 218 pounds, and a one-cut runner, to boot. And despite his reliance on Arian Foster the past four seasons, Kubiak sounds committed to a two-back approach. “I think in this league nowadays you need a couple of guys,” Kubiak told the Ravens’ website in February. “It’s hard to hand it to one guy 30 times a game; they just get worn down. It’ll take both of (Rice and Pierce). They’re very talented and if we can get both of them going, the better we’ll be.”
Similarly, Rice’s weight loss is unlikely to have a major effect. Shedding 15 pounds was a good idea, but not necessarily an acknowledgement that he was too heavy last season. It’s likely just a nod to the fact that something, anything has to change. Rice’s hip? It should be healthy, but what’s to stop an aging back from suffering another injury? His line? Especially with a zone-blocking maestro like Kubiak at the helm, it will be better, but wholesale changes are not coming down the pipe.
Our Best Guess For 2014
There are many things that can — and likely will — go better for Rice in 2014. It would be extremely premature to declare his tank dry. But it would also be extremely naive to expect the car to be thrown in reverse after two years of decline. Rice is not the back he was in 2009-11, or even 2012. That’s what happens when you’re the centerpiece of an offense for five years in the modern NFL, a league where the defenders have never been bigger or stronger.
If you’re counting on All-Pro Ray Rice walking back through that door, you will almost certainly be disappointed. But there’s reason to believe Rice can still be an eminently-useful committee back. One who catches a lot of passes and quite possibly leads the Ravens in rushing attempts. That’s not the pedigree of a first-round fantasy pick, but could be a mid-round steal.
Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe Rice shows up to camp as the back we know and love, jump cutting till the cows come home. Stranger things have happened than a 27-year-old running back rediscovering his form. But if you bet on that, you’re betting against time and the toll it takes on a man paid to lower his pad level for a living. It’s one thing to hope Rice bounces back to the runner he once was. It’s quite another to expect it.
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