By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
9:39 PM EDT, July 26, 2013
Ravens running back Ray Rice jutted out his jaw, staring straight ahead as if he was about to stiff-arm a linebacker.
Although Rice spoke calmly when reacting to retired quarterback Donovan McNabb's critical comments of his performance in the playoffs, the Pro Bowl runner firmly left no doubt that the criticism provides extra motivation.
"I always respected him, and one thing I don't do is retaliate back," said Rice, whose three fumbles in the playoffs last season sparked McNabb's criticism. "That's his opinion. To the world's opinion, I'm still who I am, still made the Pro Bowl last year and still won a Super Bowl. Obviously, he's well-respected and I have nothing bad to say against the guy.
"If all was good to say about me, then I have nothing to prove. That's what always fuels me because somebody finds something against my game and says something about it. I just try to prove myself right, not the next person. I just keep working and that's what's kept me at this high level."
One year ago, Rice was the talk of the NFL following a career-high 2,068 combined rushing and receiving yards in 2011. He was celebrating his newly-minted five-year, $40 million maximum value contract that included a $15 million signing bonus, the highest in league history for a running back.
Yet the luster, or at least the perception, of Rice has faded somewhat during an offseason where he came under fire for uncharacteristic lapses in ball security during the postseason and was the subject of frequent speculation about whether promising backup Bernard Pierce will eat into his playing time.
"It's just something for people to talk about it, but there's no justification for calling Ray Rice a fumbler because he isn't," said former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel Louis Riddick. "Ray is as tough, pound for pound, as anyone in the league. He's instinctive and tough with great vision in the open field. People are intrigued about what Bernard Pierce might do with increased opportunities, but Ray has done nothing to suggest his workload should be reduced."
During an NFL Network appearance this summer, McNabb focused on Rice fumbling twice in an AFC wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts and losing a fumble in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers.
"Ray Rice we know is a Pro Bowler that can make big plays for you, but he has a tendency of fumbling the ball entirely too much," said McNabb, who fumbled 95 times and lost 46 of them in 13 seasons. "So, expect for Bernard Pierce to really step up and be that guy."
However, Rice has just seven fumbles in five seasons with six lost. His career-high for fumbles was in 2011 when he fumbled three times and lost two while rushing for a career-high 1,364 yards and a dozen touchdowns and catching 76 passes for 704 yards. Rice ranks second in franchise history with 5,520 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns behind Jamal Lewis.
"I really like the way Ray plays the game, we thought about drafting him in Chicago when we took Matt Forte," former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said. "A lot of people ripping on him don't have a clue. The guy's a playmaker. If anybody rags on Ray Rice, they're ragging on the wrong guy."
Last season, Rice's rushing yards dipped to 1,143 yards as his carries fell from 291 the previous season to 257 attempts.
That coincided with Pierce emerging as a bruising change of pace with 108 carries for 532 yards. In the playoffs as a rookie, his role increased with 202 yards with Rice gaining 306 yards.
"We've got so many guys, so many weapons, and I just don't have to feel that pressure," Rice said. "This year, it's like I know big plays are going to happen: 'Don't force them, Ray.'"
Rice is a compact runner, built low to the ground at 5-foot-8, 212 pounds. He has deceptive power, but is primarily known for his elusiveness and versatility.
Durable and tough, Rice hasn't missed a game in four seasons.
Yet he didn't end the playoffs on a high note last season, gaining 48 yards on 19 carries in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots and rushing for 59 yards on 20 carries in the Super Bowl after rushing for 131 yards on 30 carries in a double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos. The previous year in two playoff games, Rice rushed for 127 yards on 42 carries for a 3.0 average per rush.
"When I look at Ray, at times it looks like he wears down at the end of the season," former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said. "I think he gets tired and they ask him to play the big back role in a small back body. I get the feeling that the last two or three seasons he runs out of gas in the playoffs."
Rice hasn't displayed any signs of wanting to hog the football, or being threatened by Pierce. He has consistently praised his understudy, a 2012 third-round draft pick from Temple.
"Ray is unselfish, he's a team guy," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "His biggest concern is winning and he wants the offense to put up a lot of points. He always wants touches, and he wants catches and he wants yards like any good player would.
"But the thing about Ray is that he's so versatile. He can do everything. He can run the football inside or outside. He's excellent in the passing game. You couldn't ask any more from a running back."
Rice could be affected financially, though, by how much he's utilized by offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. His contract, which includes $22 million in guaranteed money, also contains $5 million worth of base salary escalator and incentives clauses that he has yet to earn.
Rice has a $4 million escalator that can be triggered by rushing for 1,200 yards and having 550 receiving yards in the same season where the Ravens rank in the top 10 in total offense. There's another $1 million incentive with the same statistical requirements.
The incentive can only be earned one time during the length of the deal. Rice fell 57 rushing yards and 72 receiving yards shy of the individual facets of the clauses last year as the Ravens finished 16th in total offense.
Will Rice regain his 2,000-yard all-purpose heights from two seasons ago?
"It's different now," Rice said. "If I had to do it, I can, but with the team that we have and the weapons that we have, it might not be 2,000 yards. It might be 1,700, 1,800 all-purpose. If I'm right around that year in and year out, that's a pretty successful year."
If Rice had hit the escalator last season, his base salaries for the next four years would have increased annually by $1 million, and he would have earned the $1 million incentive. His last chance to trigger the escalator is in 2014.
Should Rice meet the statistical categories this season, he would boost his 2015 and 2016 salaries from $3 million to $5 million.
"It all comes down to how Caldwell handles the run-pass mix and splits the work up between Rice and Pierce," said former NFL agent Joel Corry, who analyzes the business of football for National Football Post. "If Caldwell doesn't use Ray more as a receiver, he'll never earn the escalator. If Pierce eats into his carries, he could keep falling short. The Ravens could have made this incentive a bit easier instead of also tying it into a team component.
"Ray is handling everything perfectly by not complaining because you don't want to come off like those diva receivers. Fans don't want to hear that. It's smart for him to take that stance. He's not going to let it become an issue that permeates the locker room."
Rice is convinced that he's entering his prime, hitting stride as he enters his sixth NFL season having alresady been named to three Pro Bowls.
"I'm still young," Rice said. "I'm only 26, but I do feel like the veteran amongst my group. When I do talk now, they will listen. As far as football playing-wise, I've still got a lot."
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