Where Ray Rice must really prove himself

Will running behind what is expected to be an improved offensive line help Ray Rice find his old form? Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- When Ray Rice stepped onto the field for his first offseason practice this week, it officially began the biggest season of the Baltimore Ravens running back's career.

For the first time in a while, it has nothing to do with what happened in an Atlantic City casino or on an embarrassing security video. That was personal. The challenges that lie ahead for Rice are all business.

If Rice wants to have a future with the Ravens, he has to prove he can be a playmaking running back in this league again. He can be a model citizen this year. He can do and say all the right things. That would make for a fine reclamation story, but it would be meaningless for his career if he doesn't rebound as a player as well.

Long before Rice's wholesome image hit rock bottom, his reputation as a difference-maker reached that point. Rice struggled to break tackles last season. He lacked a burst in between the tackles and an explosiveness in the open field. Rice's signature play, that converted fourth-and-29 -- "Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle" -- seems like a distant memory.

The Ravens sent a strong message to Rice after the season when owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged that the team had discussed whether Rice was done as a productive running back. "I think he'll come back with a vengeance ... and if he doesn't, then we'll be making a tough decision next year, probably," Bisciotti said in January.

This was a month before Rice was arrested for allegedly striking his then-fiancee. It was going to be a make-or-break year for Rice regardless if he had stayed out of trouble this offseason. The Ravens simply aren't going to pay him $3 million in 2015 if he's the NFL's 30th-ranked rusher again.

Can Rice become a Pro Bowl runner again? The odds are certainly stacked against him. NFL history shows running backs suffer significant drop-offs after the age of 27, and Rice turned 27 in January. He has incurred a lot of wear and tear (fourth-most carries in the NFL since 2009), and there are some questions whether he's a good fit in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's running scheme.

The Ravens are essentially married to Rice through this season after rewarding him with a five-year, $35 million contract, which included a $15 million signing bonus, before the 2012 season. At the time, he was the best all-around running back in the NFL. From 2009 to 2011, he led the league in total yards. The Ravens always could rely on Rice, whether it was an 83-yard touchdown run in a playoff game in New England or his 131-yard effort in a postseason game in Denver. Joe Flacco can't count the number of times a 5-yard dump-off pass to Rice turned into a 15-yard gain.

Then, before you can say "Hey diddle diddle," it was like someone pulled the plug on all of Rice's electric plays. Flacco had as many 20-yard runs as Rice did last season. Each had one. Rice's 3.1-yard per carry average was the third worst among starting running backs and his average of 1.1 yards after contact ranked last in the league.

There's plenty of blame to pass around. The Ravens' offensive line rarely opened up running lanes, and Rice suffered a hip injury in Week 2 that derailed the rest of his season. Rice wasn't successful for the first time in his six-year NFL career, and there were signs that the frustration weighed on him.

Rice was accused of spitting on Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Phillip Taylor in the middle of the season, and he began to limit the questions he answered after games later in the year. There was also the bizarre stretch in the season finale, a game that the Ravens needed to win to reach the playoffs, in which Rice played only two series in the first half -- the first one and last one. Ravens coach John Harbaugh later said he couldn't explain Rice's absence in the most critical game of the season.

This is a new season and a new opportunity for Rice. The Ravens will field a better offensive line after trading for center Jeremy Zuttah and welcoming back left guard Kelechi Osemele from a back injury that sidelined him for the final nine games last season. Baltimore also hired Kubiak, who has a proven track record with rushing attacks. Rice has done his part as well, reportedly dropping more than 10 pounds this offseason.

Make no mistake, the Ravens need Rice this season. Bernard Pierce can't stay healthy, and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro is a year removed from playing against the likes of Gardner-Webb and VMI. Rice is going to be the centerpiece of the Ravens' running attack.

Ravens officials have to be concerned how their ground game will hold up if Rice is suspended. But there has to be equal concern about how much of an impact he'll make when he returns.

The way it's set up, Rice will either redeem himself with the Ravens or he'll be playing his final season with them.