Now that Ray Rice has held a widely criticized news conference Friday that included some awkward, off-the-cuff moments and no public apology to his wife, just months after their physical altercation at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino, the Ravens' star running back is hoping for a much smoother experience on the football field.
That return could be delayed, though, by a punishment under the NFL's personal-conduct policy. The Ravens are bracing for a potential multiple-game suspension, but no discipline has been determined, and Rice is expected to meet soon with commissioner Roger Goodell.
"I'm assuming he will meet with the commissioner at some point in the near future and make a decision about what discipline, if any, is appropriate," Ravens team president Dick Cass said. "I'm not going to speculate. The commissioner is going to decide that. I'm going to leave it to the commissioner."
The precedent for most first-time offenders involved in domestic violence incidents such as Rice is suspensions of one or two games, as former Ravens cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Cary Williams received, respectively. But Goodell tends to consider increasing punishments, as lawyer and former NFL counsel David Cornwell told The Baltimore Sun earlier this week, for higher-profile incidents. In Rice's case, a leaked video surfaced, showing him dragging his unconscious then-fiancee out of an elevator after an altercation.
Rice, who is represented by Philadelphia lawyer Michael Diamondstein, has entered a diversionary program approved by prosecutors, allowing him to avoid jail time and possibly have his record cleared in a year, despite being charged with felony aggravated assault.
Goodell suspended Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games in 2010, which was later reduced to four games, after Roethlisberger was investigated, but never charged, for an alleged sexual assault of a woman in Georgia. Roethlisberger was accused of a similar previous incident involving a woman in Nevada the year before, though no charges were filed.
"There's a punishment for everything," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, one of Rice's closest friends on the Ravens and the lone teammate to attend the news conference. "Whatever it is, we'll deal with it and handle it as a team. We'll have to deal with the loss. I'm sure there will be some kind of loss.
"You do something that draws attention like this, it deserves punishment. Whatever it may be, whether it's fines or suspensions, I can't really say. Something happens like that and, obviously, it doesn't look good on him on him or the league or the organization. Whatever punishments they dish out, he'll handle it and we'll handle it as a team and we'll accept it."
Rice has lost roughly 20 pounds since last season in his bid to regain his Pro Bowl form, and is down to a leaner 205 pounds after the worst year of his career.
Rice rushed for 660 yards, his lowest total since becoming a regular starter, while dealing with hip and quadriceps injuries that robbed him of his trademark elusiveness and tackle-breaking skills.
Rice has been participating in the Ravens' voluntary offseason program and plans to practice in the team's first organized team activity next week.
"He's already shown it in the way he returned," Smith said of his expectations for Rice. "Physically, he looks a lot different. He's worked hard. He's here for all the voluntary stuff. As you know, a lot of vets can kind of take that off. He's working his tail off. He's leading us in the right direction.
"I expect him to play ball. It's football, the same game he's been playing forever. Football is kind of an outlet to take you away from all of the things on the outside. I think probably the best thing is for the season to happen, for whatever punishment to get that out of the way and just go play ball."
How Rice will be perceived off the field remains a thorny issue.
Winning in the court of public opinion could prove even more difficult than on-field success for Rice, who was one of the Ravens' most popular and community-oriented players until his arrest in February.
"I think it will be up to our fans to decide if they will let him regain the trust that he had established," Cass said. "I think he's going to work hard toward that. I know he's committed to it and I'm confident Ray is going to do everything he can. It will be up to our fans to decide what they think of Ray going forward."
Rice and his wife, Janay Rice, who struck each other with their hands during a fight at Revel Casino, according to law enforcement officials who based their case on video surveillance, initially were charged with simple assault. Her case later was administratively dismissed by prosecutors after the case was reviewed; Rice's charge was upgraded to a more serious third-degree felony.
The couple has been in counseling since the incident, and Rice on Friday thanked counselor Dr. Paul Ball and team chaplain Johnny Shelton for "ministering us through this time and showing us a different way."
"They made a lot of growth," Smith said. "I think they're stronger than before the incident. I think they're growing more and more each day and becoming a better couple, better friends and better parents. It's amazing to watch. It's tough that it took this situation for it to happen, but it happened and they're making the best out of it.
"At the end of the day, we look at him as a brother. We support your family. My wife and I are there for Ray and Janay. They're night and day from where they were, even before the incident. I think that's a credit to them. I continue to look at him as a brother and his wife as a sister."
On the advice of his lawyer, team officials and NFL Players Association officials, Rice didn't take questions during his news conference, as his case is still ongoing.
"It's a tough spot to be in because a lot of fans have been waiting for answers since the incident," Smith said. "Obviously, due to legal issues, he can't really say much. People think he has something to hide and that he's not being open, but you guys understand the legal system. It was his first chance for people to see how he felt and it means a lot to him.
"It's tough being an athlete. You are kind of under the microscope, as you should be. You're in a position where everybody looks up to you and you are a role model. If you happen to make a mistake or falter in any way, there's going to be a lot of heat. He stood up there. He manned up and accepted the responsibility. He knows what he has to do to make it right. The only thing he can do is become a better Ray."
Smith expressed confidence that Rice will come back from what Smith characterized as "probably the lowest feeling for him in his life so far," and described Rice as "a changed man."
Smith was asked how he thought Rice would be judged going forward.
"When you see somebody do so many things right, and they do one thing wrong and everybody turns their back on you, it's like that for many athletes," Smith said. "There are a lot of kids looking up to you. It's a lot more disappointing in a lot of ways. Whatever consequences come with it, we'll handle it, but Ray is still Ray Rice. He's still a great guy. He just made a mistake. None of us are perfect.
"It's definitely tough. You see a guy who's very lovable and always happy and you see him down. You know what he has to do to make it right. It's a long road. He's doing the right things. Rather than turn our back on him, he has our support. You just don't turn your back on family. Even if they do something you're very disappointed in, at the end of the day, they're still your family."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun