The Ravens are hitching their offensive wagon to Ray Rice in 2014. There's no doubt about it.
"As he goes, we'll go," Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak told Garrett Downing in a BaltimoreRavens.com interview earlier this week.
This shouldn't surprise anyone. The Ravens have consistently hitched their wagon to Rice in recent years and come away with plenty to show for it. Rice has rolled up more than 9,000 rushing and receiving yards in six seasons, scored 43 touchdowns and earned three Pro Bowl selections. He's a top playmaker, and just turned 27. The Ravens want him in the middle of what they do.
For the first time, though, there's some uncertainty about that blueprint. Rice wasn't nearly as effective in 2013 as he was in his first five seasons. He averaged just 3.1 yards per carry, couldn't break tackles, couldn't deliver big plays. An unsettling question, unthinkable a year ago, suddenly began to circulate: Has he played his best football?
It's a fair question because Rice has carried a heavy load, and some backs with similar histories have hit a wall of sorts around this point in their careers, becoming less productive.
Before he was the Ravens' running backs coach from 2008-2012, Wilbert Montgomery was an excellent back for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1977-1985. He produced 7,503 yards on 1,432 touches in his first six seasons, carrying the Eagles. But he was never as productive after that.
Another back from that era, Larry Brown, also had more than 1,400 touches and earned four Pro Bowl invitations in his first five seasons with the Washington Redskins, but he had little left after that.
With 1,799 touches in his first six seasons, Rice has seen the ball even more than Montgomery or Brown.
Among today's backs, Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, 28, hasn't been as dangerous since the end of his sixth season; he reportedly could be a salary cap casualty this year. Tennessee's Chris Johnson, 28, dropped off enough in 2013 that he also could be a cap casualty.
The Ravens have no choice but to proceed with Rice, as they would clear little cap space by cutting him. He is due to make almost $9 million in 2014. But financial considerations aren't even involved in their decision-making. The Ravens still want Rice as their lead back, and have expressed faith in his ability to bounce back and produce.
Their rationale is a combination of factors led to his falloff in 2013. He dealt with a hip flexor injury early in the season, a hamstring injury late. His blockers opened few holes. After bulking up to gain strength, he wasn't as elusive.
Those are all correctable issues, the Ravens believe.
"I'm very confident that when he says he's going to come back in the best shape of his life and be better than ever, I'm confident that he's going to do exactly that," Head Coach John Harbaugh said in late December.
It should be noted that many backs have NOT followed Wilbert Montgomery's career arc, sustaining their production beyond a half-dozen years of carrying heavy loads. Barry Sanders had almost 2,000 touches in his first six seasons, and if anything, got better. O.J. Simpson had a pair of great seasons in his late 20s. So did Marshall Faulk.
After getting a ridiculous 2,763 touches in his first six seasons in San Diego, LaDanian Tomlinson produced almost 3,500 yards of offense in the next two seasons.
It's not a stretch to say the success of the Ravens' 2014 offense depends on Rice following those latter arcs rather than Montgomery's or Brown's. In Kubiak's system, a strong running game sets up the passing game via play-action fakes. Although Rice is more of a darting runner than the one-cut backs such as Arian Foster who have thrived under Kubiak, there's little doubt he can also flourish. "We've got to get Ray going, doing what he does best," Kubiak said.
The Ravens' faith in that happening is rooted in knowing that Rice is a workout warrior with a lot of pride; that it will be an upset if he isn't driven to right what went wrong in 2013; that the smart move is betting he has another strong year in him.