Is Ray Rice Done?
Don't even talk to me about Ray Rice.
You know that's what you're thinking right now if you owned the once-great fantasy back this season, and for good reason. Only Trent Richardson’s ineptitude, C.J. Spiller’s ankle and Arian Foster's back kept Rice from being the biggest bust of Round 1. But it's time to put that behind you.
Now we have to figure out a question that would have seemed silly just 6 months ago: Is Ray Rice done?
Well, we obviously won't know the answer at least until the 2014 NFL regular season gets rolling. But let's start by looking back at the factors working against him in the just-finished season.
The most obvious: His offensive line sucked. Pro Football Focus rated the group 11th best in the league at run-blocking in both 2011 and 2012, making 5 straight seasons of 12th or better in those rankings. Baltimore finished 26th in 2013.
Similarly, Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens' blockers 6th in adjusted line yards in 2011 and 2012. This past season? 32nd. That's dead-freakin'-last. Not too many RBs can find running room behind a line that bad -- especially when your passing game can muster only a #30 ranking in yards per attempt.
Ravens HC John Harbaugh adds that Rice dealt with physical issues in 2013.
"Ray Rice fought through some things," he said, per The Star-Ledger. "There were some issues he had with his legs that other players wouldn't have even played with. It's not who Ray is. I think he fought through it and did the best he could with where he was at. I'm very confident, when he says he's going to come back in the best shape of his life and be better than ever, I'm confident he's going to do exactly that."
Hey, maybe he will. We'd certainly be happy to see the old Rice carrying fantasy football teams once again in 2014. But Harbaugh indirectly signaled issues beyond that in Week 17.
The 26-year-old star back carried just 6 times in a finale that Baltimore needed to reach the playoffs. Afterward, coach and player both said that the team limited Rice's role for strategic reasons rather than because of either the hip or quad that he'd injured earlier in the year.
Well which is it? Did Rice stumble because his body let him down? Or is his body wearing down already at age 26? Cuz you're not going to convince anyone around here that Bernard Pierce and Bernard Scott simply matched up better against the Bengals ... in a game your team lost.
Frankly, we're worried Rice might already be hitting the downside of his career.
Look back over his regular-season stats, and you don't see a guy who has endured such a punishing workload. Rice surpassed 250 carries in 4 straight seasons before 2013 but only topped 257 twice and reached 300 just once. Six other RBs carried the ball more over that span, led by Adrian Peterson's 1,516. That's exactly 300 more rushing attempts than Rice for that period.
But throw in the playoffs, and Rice goes from 1,216 to 1,407 -- and 5th on the list, 202 behind leader Peterson. He also caught at least 117 more passes than all 4 of the guys ahead of him, vaulting Rice to 2nd on that list in total touches.
Honestly, we overlooked that factor heading into 2013. We knew about the extra postseason work, we just chose not to be alarmed because he'd been a dynamic receiver and a more effective runner when not overworked. (Even most of the folks wary of Rice heading into last summer's drafts cited Pierce's role as the primary concern.) We were wrong.
So what now? Can we expect Rice to bounce back? Well, history doesn't smile on his chances.
I looked back over the 50 RBs since 1960 who have seen the most touches over their 1st 5 seasons, including the postseason. (Rice ranks 24th among that group and just finished his 6th year.) No other player in that group saw his yards per carry drop as precipitously from Year 5 to Year 6 as Rice's 1.3-yard dip. Only 19 other qualifiers saw any decline between those years.
The next largest fall hit Bills RB Thurman Thomas. He went from 4.8 yards per carry at age 26 in 1992 to 3.7 in 1993. Thomas also followed 5 straight seasons of 10.2-yard receiving averages or better with just 8.1 yards per catch in 1993. Thomas played 7 more years beyond that but surpassed 8.5 yards per reception just twice -- and 1 of those came in a 3-catch season. His rushing averages stayed south of 4.0 for 4 straight years after that 1992 season, turning only when he became a part-time player for his final 4 seasons.
Thomas logged 3 more 1,000-yard seasons in a row after his Year 6 downturn, but he did so thanks to volume. It's tough to see Rice matching Thomas' 287, 267 and 281 carries in his age-28, age-29 and age-30 seasons. Those attempts-per-game averages would rank 2nd, 3rd and 4th among Rice's career stats right now. Rice also hasn't proved as explosive a receiver as Thomas, surpassing 9.0 yards per catch just once in 6 seasons. Rice's decline from 9.3 in 2011 to 7.8 in 2012 and 5.5 last season only adds to the concern. And Baltimore's weak offense certainly doesn't help.
Thomas -- built similarly to Rice at 5'10, 200 pounds -- stands out as a strong comparison for Rice, but other similarly built predecessors provide reason to worry as well:
-- Wilbert Montgomery (5'10, 196) still holds the Philadelphia Eagles record for career rushing yards. But he never logged more than 201 carries in a season after his 5th year, when he was 27.
-- Curt Warner (the other one; 5'11, 205) saw his yards per carry drop from 4.2 in his 5th season to 3.9 in his 6th (age 27), and then 3.3 in his 7th. Year 8 was his last.
-- Willie Parker (5'10, 209) proved basically done after 913 total carries over 2nd, 3rd and 4th seasons.
-- Maurice Jones-Drew (5'7, 210) lost 10 games to injury in his age-27 season (2012, Year 7) and then returned for a career-worst 3.4 yards per carry this past year. We can't say for sure that he's done yet, but his body certainly seems to be indicating as much.
-- Even Marshall Faulk -- who played wonderfully after joining the Rams in Year 6 -- missed at least 2 games every season from Year 7 on. And that came despite never carrying more than 260 times in a season for St. Louis.
Rice could look to former Buccaneers and Falcons RB Warrick Dunn for inspiration. Dunn slipped from 4.6 yards per carry in 2000 -- his 4th season, at age 25 -- to 2.8 yards per rush the next year. He followed that with a 4.0-yard rushing average after moving from Tampa to Atlanta in 2002 (at age 27) and then enjoyed 4 more unequivocally good years with the Falcons.
At the same time, Dunn did catch a career-high 68 passes for 557 yards (an 8.2 average) and 3 TDs even in his down season. And he had finished with just 3.2 yards per carry 2 seasons prior. So his Year 5 dip wasn't nearly the outlier that Rice's 2013 looks like so far.
Perhaps more importantly, Dunn didn't enter the NFL with as much wear on his body as Rice. The tiny former Seminole carried just 68, 152, 166 and 189 times in his 4 college seasons. Rice, on the other hand, logged 195, 335 and 380 attempts in his 3 years at Rutgers.
Throw that in with all the touches he has seen in the regular season and playoffs since joining the Ravens, and you can see that Rice has endured a lot. Perhaps he'll get healthier and bounce back in 2014, but we're not betting on a return to the heights of 2012 and before. RB2 territory looks like a realistic fantasy goal.
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