Ravens running back Ray Rice had a successful rookie season because he won both the physical and mental battles. The second year shouldn't be as much of a grind.
Rice, though, still has a lot to prove, and he wants to become the all-around running back that coordinator Cam Cameron wants in his offense.
"This offseason, I'm going to do more catching and blocking," Rice said. "I'm going to prepare harder because I now know what it takes to play in this league. I'm going to prepare to get the ball in my hands somehow, some way - every way possible."
By the middle of the season, Rice, drafted in the second round out of Rutgers, had become a role player for the Ravens as a third-down weapon out of the backfield. He finished the season with 454 yards on 107 carries and had 273 yards on 33 receptions.
But a deep bruise on his left shin suffered in the game against the Washington Redskins forced Rice to the sideline for most of the final six games, including the playoffs.
Rice never again found his rhythm.
"At first, they put you in the boot and they try to control the swelling," Rice said. "Then they mix the heat and ice treatments. It initially felt like a high ankle sprain, but it wasn't. I had never been hurt before, so this was new to me.
"Every week I kept wondering when I was going to get better. I kept asking myself, is it going to be this week? Is it going to be next week? When?"
Though Rice was declared healthy by the Ravens for the final two playoff games, he barely touched the ball. He was obviously disappointed, but that has increased his desire to get more playing time in 2009.
Rice is close to the prototype that Cameron wants, certainly more so than Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee, the two dominant runners most of last season. McClain is a power back who can wear opposing defenses down. McGahee has a slashing, cutback style. Neither proved he could catch the ball out of the backfield consistently.
The Ravens have high hopes for Rice.
"We think he is an outstanding football player," Cameron said during the season. "He is smart. He is tough. He probably has a little different style. He has a little more quickness in some areas than some players."
There were questions about Rice's pass-catching ability until the seventh game, against the Oakland Raiders.
"I think that's the game where I established my role," Rice said. "They kept dumping me the ball out of the backfield, allowing me to go one-on-one against the Raiders' linebackers. That was a knock on me coming out of college, was if I could catch the ball.
"From that point, I thought I was just starting to blossom because I understood my role. Even against the Redskins, I had three carries for  yards, and then I got hurt."
Maybe part of the reason it took Rice so long to recover was fatigue. He acknowledges that he got tired about the same time he got injured.
It's nothing new for rookies to feel that way late in the season. They spend a lot of time preparing for their senior seasons in college. Most of them play in bowl games with their respective teams before preparing for the NFL combines or other workouts in front of pro scouts.
They participate in their first NFL season without giving their bodies a break.
"With our record and the playoff games, it was like I had played two college seasons," Rice said. "I first started feeling it when I got hurt. Now, though, I'm better prepared. I can prepare my mind and body because I know what to expect."
Rice believes the Ravens have a good offensive nucleus from which to build, and he welcomes back both his competitors from last season, especially McGahee.
Rice says McGahee taught him a lot, especially about overcoming adversity. He points to the final game against Pittsburgh, when McGahee took a vicious shot from the Steelers' Ryan Clark in the closing minutes.
"He shared some things with us about his rookie season, on how he came back from the injury" he suffered in his last college game, Rice said. "He came back [this season] from his eye being gashed, the hurt ribs and the hit in the Steelers game. With Willis, he taught us how to bounce back and keep going forward.
"My rookie season was full of ups and downs, and I had some adversity, which I overcame. Overall, though, it was productive, and it's something I can build on."
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