Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice is hands down one of the superstars of the NFL. Since his emergence, Rice has not only made a solid impact for the Ravens, he became a premiere playmaker and is ecognized around the league. Thanks to the curse of the NFL—which is better known as the salary cap—the Ravens are in another unique situation with one of their homegrown stars.
NFL running backs are no longer great investments for clubs now days because defenders hit much harder, causing ball carriers to weaken through the course of a contest. To be impactful in today’s NFL, teams need at least two compatible backs to help carry the load and put pressure on defenses to be on their toes, especially late in games.
This forsaken question cannot be ignored—should the Ravens re-sign their outstanding back in Rice for the sake of the salary cap to sign other running backs to help the Ravens’ running game not be one-dimensional during the playoffs?
During the Ravens’ season-ending press conference with owner Steve Bisciotti, executive vice president Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh, and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, Bisciotti profoundly stated Rice (including quarterback Joe Flacco) will remain a Raven.
"Ray's an unrestricted free agent, so obviously, the franchise mechanism has to come into play,” said Bisciotti. “We are just going to sit down and start grinding out a contract and terms, and that's something that I trust Ozzie and Pat to do well. Ray [Rice] and Joe Flacco will be part of this football team next year—guaranteed."
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Rice produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns in the 2011 season. Rice’s performance is not a surprise as he displayed great numbers during the regular season since he entered the NFL. Clearly, the Ravens are built for the postseason, which has not been No. 27’s strongest suit—well at least last season.
The speedy back from Rutgers University had his best campaign last season with him being the sole featured runner for the Ravens. The three prior seasons, Rice had to share the backfield with Willie McGahee (now with the Denver Broncos) and LeRon McClain (free agent). The Ravens were better balanced in their running game during the postseason from 2007 to 2010 with their three-headed monster attack. Opposing defenses had difficulties with the speed of Rice, the power of McClain and the elusiveness of McGahee.
Rice could have used the services of another back, along with Ricky Williams who contributed well with his blink of an eye appears.
Rice amassed 127 rushing yards on 42 carries, averaging three yards per carry and no touchdowns in the playoffs against the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots. In the postseason, teams focused solely on Rice, and during the second season of the NFL, achieving the needed tough yards up the middle in critical situations are golden. Rice displayed that he was not strong enough last in those games to get those tough yards.
Will this be a sign to come for the Ravens’ running game during the postseason knowing that Rice will be the primary back?
Reportedly, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson signed a four-year, $53.5 million deal last season and Minnesota Vikings back Adrian Peterson, reportedly, re-signed a $100 million deal spanning seven years in 2011. Rice can easily command the same deal as his counterparts. Nevertheless, when was the last time an elite running back help led their team to the Super Bowl?
Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk was dynamic in the St. Louis Rams’ Super Bowl title year, during the regular season. Faulk was a non-factor during the postseason and in their Super Bowl win against the Tennessee Titans in 2000 (23-16), he gained 17 yards on 10 carries.
The last time an elite running back led a team to a Super Bowl victory, while being effective, was Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis in 1998 when he earned the game’s MVP (the last running back to win the award) after he ran for 157 yards and scored three touchdowns on the ground.
Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis was effective in Baltimore’s championship season in 2001, but he was not on elite statue at the time. Nonetheless, Lewis was the last primary back for a team to be effective for a squad that won a Super Bowl—11 years ago.
What contributed this academic—NFL offensive rule changes. The NFL is one of the most powerful, influential businesses in the world, and quarterbacks are the biggest investments for teams, so they must be protected, along with wide receivers.
The days of solely featuring an effective elite back during the postseason are over. Elite running back around the NFL will always be successful—during the regular season. The Ravens are built for the playoffs, and when Rice get paid handsomely, Baltimore will look for him to be effective—in the playoffs. Based off what happened this past season, Rice will not, unless the Ravens balance their running game out.
A solid pass team with a "balanced" running game, of at least two backs, are the keys for Super Bowl teams.
The Ravens are notorious for not signing their players before the free agency period begins. Baltimore’s history states, in terms of signing their players, Rice will get hit with the franchise tag (averaging the highest amount of money based on the top paid running backs), which begins Feb. 20 and ends March 5.
Bisciotti explained during the team’s press conference that the league’s salary cap is similar to using a credit card.
“We spend as much money as I'm allowed under the CBA under the salary cap rules, and when I say as much, I mean that we've never been under the salary cap,” said Bisciotti. “And there's different ways to look at that, because we can mortgage a lot with a credit card. So, what the credit card does for you is [it] allows you to get a complete team. But, if you use too much on credit, then you are going to have dead money in future years. If you're not careful, then you are going to have a lot of dead money on your salary cap.
“So, we are conservative when it comes to how much [is used] on the credit card,” he added. “That's how the window opens and closes, I believe. It's that you put more on the credit card than you probably should have, and then you start cutting guys and the dead money goes to $15-20 million a year, and that's 15 percent of your salary cap being eaten up by guys that are no longer here. That's the balance that we've got to set, and I think we do a very good job of that."
Rice will be in a Ravens’ uniform for many years, as Baltimore is notorious for taking care of their players. It would be foolish for the Ravens to not re-sign Rice. Moreover, if the Ravens did not re-sign their best offensive player to compile a more solid core of backs to balance their running game during the postseason to win a Super Bowl, due to the salary cap, that more would be understood as well.
Most specifically, the Ravens must provide a change up in their running game for the postseason to help Rice like they once did because Rice cannot carry the team when it counts by himself.
Just something to think about.
Barry Barnes is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.