Rice eager to prove he's still a premier back

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice made it clear he doesn't want to miss the playoffs for the first time in his six-year NFL career.

But, when asked about his trying season Thursday, you got the sense there's a part of Rice that is already looking forward to 2014.

"Needless to say, I still have to focus on this year and finishing out this year as strong as I can. Next year will be next year," Rice said. "I will make sure I come back in the best shape: Bigger, faster, stronger, whatever you want to call that stuff to prove myself again, that I’ll still be a premier running back in the NFL."

This has been Rice's worst season, whether you're talking statistically, physically, and likely mentally, too. A hip injury in Week 2 derailed his season and made an electric runner look like a mediocre one.

When there has been an open hole, and that has been rare, Rice hasn't shown the explosion to get through it. His inability to break tackles in the open field has reduced his big plays in the passing game.

Rice said in the middle of October that he was back at full strength, but he acknowledged later in the season that the injury has continued to bother him. It shows in the results.

Since taking over as the Ravens' featured back, Rice has finished among the top 10 in total yards, including ranking in the top three in 2009, 2010 and 2011. This season, he is 52nd in total yards with 931.

There are 14 running backs who have more rushing yards than Rice has total yards.

Now, a thigh injury (which Rice says is not related to his hip) could reduce his playing time in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati.

"From a personal standpoint, I understand that I played through a lot this year," Rice said. "Statistically, I put all of that stuff aside. I had a platform NFL career, and everything’s been great. Even for some of the people who say you lost a step, it’s different when you have an injury that controls things that you’re normally good at doing. I had to battle that this year."

Rice, who turns 27 next month, said he will contemplate retirement at the age of 30, but the Ravens have to decide how much he has left. Rice's salary-cap number jumps from $5.75 million this year to $8.75 million in 2014, so the Ravens have to be confident that this down season has been because of injuries and not a decline in his play.

What works in Rice's favor has been the struggles of the offensive line. Even backup running back Bernard Pierce has averaged less than three yards per carry.

Rice believes he will overcome these injuries, which were unusual ones for him. He's dealt with shoulder and knee sprains in the past. But the ones this season have been muscular issues.

"That’s something I know I can fix," Rice said. "Maybe something to change for me is less muscle [work] and more speed. It may be something I might want to change up. That’ll be an offseason study for myself. I’ve always sculpted my body to be ready for the season. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done training. I think I came into the season in great shape. This just happens to be a freak deal."