The running back plays one of the most punishing positions in sports. At least a dozen times a game — or more, if the Ravens are winning and he is running well — Rice runs full speed at 250-pound linebackers who are running full speed right at him. Those collisions are like slow-speed car crashes, and even modern technology can’t create helmets that totally absorb the blows.
Rice has now touched the ball 2,158 times in his professional career, including playoff and preseason games, after shouldering a heavy workload in college. He has not been tackled hard on all of those 1,723 carries and 435 catches, but those collisions already appear to be taking a toll on him nearly a month before his 27th birthday. In his least productive season as a starter, Rice has just 605 rushing yards while averaging 3.1 yards per carry.
On a conference call with New England reporters on Wednesday, Rice was asked whether he thinks about his future in the game and whether he would keep playing down the road even if he no longer resembled the back that was selected to three Pro Bowls. Rice said he plans to take stock of his life and his career when he hits 30.
"You know, it's always something to think about at the running back position. I'll just put it out there: My goal was to make it 10 years in the NFL," Rice said. "Anything after 10, if I can't do it the way I want to, then it's something to think about. But I'm young. I came in the NFL at 21 years old, a young guy. So I'm still young, I'm only going to be 27 in January. So there's a lot of football left to be played. With that being said, I have priorities, too. You know, I have a young daughter, and you've just got to put all that in perspective when you're going out there week in and week out, especially when you get older in your career."
Running backs have the shortest shelf life of any position in the NFL, something I wrote about two years ago when the Ravens and Rice were negotiating his five-year, $40 million contract extension. The average career length of an NFL running back is fewer than three years, according to the NFL Players Association.
Some of the players who lasted longer than that are still feeling the effects today. Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis claims he is still affected today by the aftershocks of multiple concussions. Tony Dorsett is dealing with memory loss and depression. Earl Campbell, who turns 59 in March, uses a walker to get around.
Those are just a few of the many former players —the pain is not limited to running backs— who have had their quality of life diminished by playing this punishing game, so nobody would blame Rice if he did decide to walk away from the game while he was still physically able, as Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and Gale Sayers did.
The Ravens have Rice under contract through his age-29 season, though his cap figure becomes less restrictive after 2014. Given how the Ravens proceeded with Lewis and how they do business in general, a third contract here with Rice seems unlikely, unless it's on the cheap.
Hall of Fame running backs such as Emmitt Smith and O.J. Simpson hung around the game past their prime and finished their careers with unproductive years in unfamiliar locations. Rice said that if the business side of football ever forced him out of Baltimore, he would be conscious of how finishing his career elsewhere might affect his legacy.
"Who knows what the future can hold?" Rice said on the conference call. "If I can retire a Raven, that would be great. But it all depends on the running back position, too. The wear and tear of a running back, obviously it's true. So you don't want to be going out there and tarnishing something that you're already doing well."