Should the Ravens Turn Away from Ray Rice as Their Starting Running Back?

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Should the Ravens Turn Away from Ray Rice as Their Starting Running Back?
USA Today

The Baltimore Ravens are down their offensive coordinator, with Jim Caldwell accepting the Detroit Lions' head coaching job. They also lack a running backs coach, having parted ways with Wilbert Montgomery two weeks ago. 

These developments could change the course of running back Ray Rice's career in Baltimore. 

Rice, who has been with the Ravens since 2008 and their starter since 2009, had the worst season of his starting career in 2013. Hobbled by an early-season hip flexor injury and later one to his quadriceps, Rice rushed 214 times for only 660 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 321 yards on 58 receptions.

His combined 981 yards for the season were less than he had from rushing alone in 2012, when he had 1,143 as well as nine scores. 

While injuries and the league's worst run-blocking offensive line can certainly explain why Rice averaged 3.1 yards per carry on the season, the turnover on the offensive staff combined with his disappointing performance could be a catalyst for a change.

Ray Rice, Career (2008-2013)
Year Att. Yds. Rush TD YPC Rec. Rec. Yds. Rec. TD
2008 107 454 0 4.2 33 273 0
2009 254 1,339 7 5.3 78 702 1
2010 307 1,220 5 4.0 63 556 1
2011 291 1,364 12 4.7 76 704 3
2012 257 1,143 9 4.4 61 478 1
2013 214 660 4 3.1 58 321 0

Rice has 1,799 career touches for a combined 9,214 yards.

In his career thus far, Rice has rushed 1,430 times for 6,180 yards and has a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. He's also caught 369 passes for 3,034 yards. In total, he's had 1,799 career touches, an average of 299.8 per year, and has 9,214 career yards from scrimmage. To say Rice has had a heavy workload would be an understatement.

And he's earned those touches. He's proven himself to be, at least until now, an invaluable part of the Ravens offense. On primarily his legs alone, the Ravens ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards per game in 2009 and 2012 and in the top half of the league in 2010 and 2011

Considering the Ravens run game as a whole averaged only 3.1 yards per carry in the 2013 season and Rice's backup, Bernard Pierce, averaged only 2.9 himself, the problem seems to point more to the abysmal line than anything Rice failed to do. 

And Ozzie Newsome is confident that the Ravens can get their offense back on track while Rice can get himself properly ready for a full workload in 2014.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Ravens need a new offensive coordinator to replace Jim Caldwell; who that is may have a big hand in Ray Rice's future.

Speaking on the run game in last week's State of the Ravens Address, he said, according to The Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson:

I think Ray is committed to being as good a football player as he has been. We had great dialogue yesterday on what we think we can do to help Ray to get there. But that combination of us having an understanding and a willingness to provide some help to him, and him having a willingness to work his butt off, we will again have a Pro Bowl running back in Ray Rice next year.

Newsome also added that he's well aware of how badly the run game performed and how crucial it is to the team's success: "To say we're disappointed in the run game, no doubt. The history of this franchise has been our ability to run the football."

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome believes "Ravens football" means a commitment to the run game.

There are clearly certain stipulations the Ravens as an organization, and Rice as an individual, must meet for Newsome to be satisfied that the run-game struggles of 2013 won't continue into the next season. And, though he sounds confident that both the Ravens and Rice can meet these particular benchmarks, that may not be the case behind closed doors.

The change in coordinator and running backs coach—both positions that have yet to be filled—could come with attendant changes in personnel. That could see Rice's carries decrease. He's not in danger of being released outright—his contract and the $8.75 million salary-cap hit he represents in 2014 dictate this isn't a viable option for a team that is going to have cap issues as it is this year.

But, as an organization, the Ravens have shown that nothing is sacred. Their near-complete retooling of the defense last year after the team's Super Bowl victory is a prime example of that. The Ravens aren't afraid of letting an iconic member of their roster leave—like Ed Reed, for one—if they believe he is past his prime. 

So, the question is whether Rice, who turns 27 years old later in January, could be past his prime or whether it was simply an ill-timed combination of injuries and a terrible offensive line that caused his poor season. The answer won't be revealed until we are well into the 2014 season.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Even backup Bernard Pierce only managed 2.9 yards per carry in 2013, and he was mostly healthy. That bodes well for Rice bouncing back as long as the offensive line improves.

Right now, it seems that the Ravens are committed to Rice and that whomever they bring on as their new offensive coordinator will have to share that viewpoint.

As reported by Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, head coach John Harbaugh detailed his desired coordinator in his press conference on Wednesday, saying:

We're confident that whether we select someone currently on our staff or from another team, we will have a coach that best fits what we want to be, where we want to go and understands what Ravens football is all about. I have a profile in mind, and we are excited about those who have shown interest in the job.

Based on Harbaugh's comments about "Ravens football" and Newsome driving home the point earlier this month that "Ravens football" means running the ball, it appears Rice has a good chance of redeeming himself in an offense that will recommit to the run game this year. 

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But it stands to reason that Rice's leash is just a bit shorter right now and the demands on him much higher. There's also a good chance that Baltimore will think about expanding its running back depth to serve as insurance for Rice, should he not bounce back or again struggle through injury.

And a bad 2014 season would likely mean the end of Rice being a starter in Baltimore. That's just the way the Ravens handle their roster. There is no room for sentimentality when the team just missed the playoffs for the first time since Rice has been on board.

So much depends on Baltimore's ability to improve its run game this year, from Rice's career to the whole of the Ravens offense. If at any point Rice appears to be part of the problem and not part of the solution, we'll likely see less and less of him on the field until he's finally off the roster.

There's no reason to believe Rice cannot turn things around, but as a running back who is not getting any younger, there is reason to be concerned he's on the downslope of his career. Look, at least, for the Ravens to find additional options at running back this year in anticipation that Rice's 2013 issues continue into 2014. The real moment of truth for him will come in 2015.

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