Comparisons abound in coverage of the NFL. Sometimes they rely on easy connections that allow lazy analysis to masquerade as insight.
There are instances, however, when a comparison is so spot-on that it creates an eerie sense of history repeating itself.
Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin and Baltimore running back Ray Rice have been compared since before Rice's collegiate coach's team jumped back into the first round in the draft to select Martin.
The closer we look at the backs, the more the ideas of the two backs merge into each other.
You might mistake Rice and Martin for each other in pads and on film if their uniforms were the same, and based on their combine numbers when they entered the NFL draft (Source: NFL Draft Scout - Rice - Martin) there's good reason for that:
|Height||Weight||40 time||Bench||Vertical||Broad||3 cone||Short Shuttle|
Martin is a little taller and thicker than Rice (hence the "Muscle Hamster" nickname). Rice has a faster top gear, at least on a track (but don't tell the Oakland Raiders that), but Martin is more explosive. They are both built low to the ground, with top-end lateral agility, exceptional strength and more than good enough wheels to run away from a defense.
The nearly identical running styles of Martin and Rice flow directly from their physical attributes. Watch the highlight reels if you don't believe it.
Both get up to speed quickly with a sense of urgency from the moment of the handoff. They still exhibit terrific vision and patience, as well as the footwork to subtly change angles or pick a different hole without losing too much momentum.
They are able to accomplish this by running quickly and with a wide base.
Change of direction comes naturally for Rice and Martin, and so does breaking tackles. Their compact build makes it very hard for anything but a form tackle (and usually multiple defenders) to bring them down. Their thick lower bodies can drive through arm tackles, and both are very difficult to knock off balance. Both run with a forward body lean that makes it easier for them to initiate contact when they can't elude an oncoming tackler.
That aspect of their running style also makes it easier to deflect contact when it isn't head-on.
Both are efficient, hard-nosed runners. You rarely see Rice or Martin give away yards to try to bounce a run outside, and they will lower their heads to win collisions and fall forward at the end of runs.
Getting downhill is the prime directive, and both backs put pressure on a defense from the moment they touch the ball in the backfield.
Neither back was a big-time receiver for his collegiate team. Rice's season-high in receptions at Rutgers was 25, Martin's at Boise State was 28. Rice eclipsed that as a part-time back in his rookie season, notching 33 receptions for the Ravens. He then put up 78 catches in his second season. Martin already has 23 in nine games, so like Rice, his pro team is going out of their way to feature him as a receiver.
Both backs are more elusive than expected in space, but their vision, tackle-breaking ability, downhill running style, strength and determination become even bigger assets when they are one-on-one with a smaller defensive back or less agile linebacker in the open field.
Neither of these mighty mites were instant successes. Martin only mustered 247 yards on 71 carries in his first four games as a pro and caught eight passes for 53 yards. Going into the Bucs' Week 5 bye, Martin had only eight carries against the Redskins and appeared to be in danger of slipping into a timeshare with LeGarrette Blount.
Since then, Martin has had 102 carries for 615 yards and 15 receptions for 243 yards in five games, a pace that would break Chris Johnson's single-season record for yards from scrimmage over a full 16-game season.
Rice was mired in a timeshare in his rookie year, getting six to eight carries in most games while Willis McGahee or LeRon McClain did the dirty work. The next season, he exploded for over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and hasn't looked back.
Both runners suffered from the same problems. They ran with too much nervous energy, trying to make more out of the play than what was there, going down too often on first contact. They also lacked the patience and efficiency that defines them when they are successful.
Perhaps the easiest, but most meaningful connection between Rice and Martin is current Tampa Bay and former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano. It is important that Schiano's team gave up the fourth-round pick they received for moving down from five to seven to get back into the first round for Martin.
When asked about the comparison last month, Schiano didn't balk at his rookie running back being compared to current NFL greatness. In fact, according JoeBucsFan.com, he welcomed it on his radio show, The Greg Schiano Show on WDAE 620 AM:
Schiano was very specific about how Doug Martin is like Rice, who was Schiano’s workhorse at Rutgers. “The patience, the vision, the balance,” was the direct comparison delivered by Schiano.
Sometimes the easy comparison is the correct one. When Greg Schiano got his first NFL head coach gig, he was smart to remember what put him on the scene at Rutgers—a team led by a hard-nosed running back with small stature but a large heart. No longer will fans be asking if Doug Martin can be as good as Ray Rice.
Now the question is, which Schiano back is better?