Just for a moment, imagine what it's like to be in Ray Rice's shoes.
The entire offseason, all your team did was emphasize its desire to improve the running game. The Ravens re-signed guard Marshall Yanda to a lucrative contract. They fired their offensive line coach. They tweaked their blocking schemes. They signed the best blocking fullback in football. All signs pointed to you, Ray Rice, becoming the focus of the offense.
And in many respects, that seemed appropriate. After all, you've gradually become the most popular Raven in town, at least on offense. Linebacker Ray Lewis has been grooming you to be the leader of the team once his playing days are up, and you've actively embraced the role. Your smiling face has been plastered on billboards around Baltimore, and your voice is a staple of local TV and radio commercials. Your contract is up at the end of the year, and everyone acknowledges you're in line for a big raise if you play at the level you've shown you're capable of.
How would you react, then, if you were averaging just 8.3 carries a game in the Ravens' three losses this year? Or if you were on pace to carry the ball just 245 times for 995 yards this season, your worst numbers since you became a starter?
The Ravens are fortunate to have Rice for many reasons, but one that cannot be overlooked this week as they prepare to face the Cincinnati Bengals is the way Rice has dealt with his decreased role in the offense this season. He was obviously frustrated after the 22-17 loss in Seattle, a game in which he touched the ball just 13 times. Typically one of the most media-friendly players on the team, Rice politely declined all interview requests, saying he didn't want to react emotionally and spark controversy.
"Ray is a high-character guy," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "[Publicly complaining] has never been an issue. I think Ray looks at it like 'Let's do whatever we need to do to win a game.' I think Ray also feels like he can be a big part of that. And that's what I want him to think. That's what he should believe because he's right."
By the time Rice did speak to the media Wednesday, smiling broadly and sporting his a Orioles hat featuring the new cartoon bird, he said he was thankful he had had the chance to collect this thoughts. The loss, he emphasized, bothered him more than the number of times he touched the ball.
"I play the game with a lot of emotion," Rice said. "And I have a great deal of respect for [the media's] job as well. My reason for declining it was just to not come out and say something after an emotional loss. You already know what that leads to. That leads to disaster. That leads to trouble. It leads to pointing fingers, and I am never going to be that kind of guy."
But it was hard to resist pleading his case a bit -- albeit respectfully.
"I am never going to be the guy that talks about touches," Rice said. "But obviously, we know going into a game, five carries is not going to cut it. You look at it, and I know five carries is not going to do us any justice."
Harbaugh said earlier this week that the Ravens couldn't have done things differently, that the way the game unfolded -- with two turnovers on special teams -- forced the Ravens to play catchup. And Rice agreed, for the most part.
"We found ourselves so deep in the situation that we had to [pass] to climb our way out," Rice said. "I always talk about not getting down in a situation like that, to where you have to be in the two-minute offense. I always said the two-minute offense is great, but when you have to take Vonte Leach off the field, who is a Pro Bowl fullback, that leads to trouble."
What makes the debate over whether Rice is touching the ball enough a bit more complicated is that it's not so much about Rice as it is a fundamental debate over what kind of team the Ravens want to be. Joe Flacco in on pace to throw the ball 642 times this season, a staggering number when you consider Tom Brady has never attempted that many passes in a season and Peyton Manning has done it only once (2010) and Drew Brees twice (2007 and 2010). In fact, if Flacco continued on this pace, it would be the sixth-highest total of pass attempts in NFL history.
Those kind of statistics haven't gone unnoticed by the players. They've tried to be diplomatic about it, but it's obvious the pass-first approach doesn't have unanimous support in the locker room.
"If that talent right there isn't touching the ball 25 or 30 times, then you have to question yourself," Lewis said of Rice. "What are we doing balance-wise? Jamal Lewis was that type of player back in the day. Ray Rice is definitely one of those talents that has to get our offense going."
Said cornerback Lardarius Webb during his weekly radio show: "Ray Rice needs to touch the ball more. That was a problem."
The elephant in the room, however, is as much Flacco as it is offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Harbaugh stated during his news conference that Flacco called some audibles during the Seahawks game, several of which changed running plays into passing plays. And Flacco acknowledged that one of those plays was the interception he threw in the third quarter.
The Ravens' fourth-year quarterback bristled a bit when asked whether he takes it personally that so many people -- including some of his teammates -- seem to be suggesting that the team run the ball more often, especially regarding the Seattle game.
"It just doesn't make sense," Flacco said. "Did you watch the game or didn't you watch the game? I understand the way our running backs feel. I understand, because if we were throwing the ball 10 times, I would be a little upset that I didn't get to put my stamp on the game, either. But did you see how the game went? It was 22-7, and there were probably eight minutes left in the third quarter and we're down 15. You have to score on pretty much every possession. ... When you look at our run-pass ratio, watch the football game, and you should understand why we threw the ball that many times and why we ran the ball that many times."
Should the Ravens run the ball even when the opposing defense appears to be daring them to pass? Rice says it's something the team needs to seriously think about.
"As a runner, you want that," Rice said. "When you see a safety down [nearly the line of scrimmage], sometimes it's not the time to get away from it. As a runner, you want to make that guy miss. You take your chances. The great ones do that."
Rumors have been swirling that the Ravens plan to use their franchise tag on Rice next year, a potential move that only further complicates things. Flacco and Rice are both eager to land contract extensions, and it's unclear yet whether there will be enough money and cap space to reward them both with long-term deals. There doesn't appear to be tension between them, but there is tension on the team. Meanwhile, the Bengals are looming.
Is Rice one of the great ones? He believes he is, or at least has the potential to be. We'll find out the next seven weeks whether the Ravens believe it as well.
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