What's going on with running back Ray Rice?
That is what every member in the Baltimore Ravens organization has to be asking after hearing Rice was arrested and charged in an altercation involving his fiancée at an Atlantic City casino. This is the most important offseason of Rice's NFL career, and he's making headlines for all of the wrong reasons.
Rice was statistically one of the worst starting running backs in the NFL last season. While offensive line struggles played a major part in Rice's disappointing season, he lacked the same elusiveness from previous seasons.
If Rice needs a reminder, owner Steve Bisciotti had this to say about him after the season: "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."
The owner is telling Rice that he gets one more year to prove himself. So, what does Rice do five weeks later? According to Atlantic City police, Rice and his fiancée "struck each other with their hands."
Rice is definitely on the team for the 2014 season because the Ravens don't clear any salary-cap room even if they did release him (and no team official has insinuated this). What Rice is playing for is his $3 million salary in the final two years of his deal (2015 and 2016). If he struggles again this season, the Ravens can make Rice a June 1 cut and gain $3 million of cap space in 2015.
Let's recount Rice's past six months, which have been the toughest stretch of his career:
Not only did Rice have the worst season of his career, he had statistically one of the worst seasons of any starting running back. His average of 44 yards rushing per game ranked 32nd in the NFL, and his 3.1 yards per carry were the lowest of any back with at least 200 attempts. Rice finished with one run over 20 yards. After the season, Bisciotti said Rice "learned that adding 10 pounds to his frame made him less elusive, not more powerful."
Along with the questions about his decline, Rice also took a shot to his reputation. Rice was accused of spitting on Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Phil Taylor during a Sept. 15 game. "I had my mouthpiece in, so when I went to say something back to him it looked as if I projected toward him," Rice said. He wasn't fined by the league because the video was inconclusive.
It was difficult for reporters to believe anything Rice had to say about his hip injury. He insisted that he was back to full strength in the middle of October, but he acknowledged later in the season that the injury has continued to bother him. After the season, Rice expressed regret about playing through the injury.
Rice's curious absence in the first half of the season finale remains a mystery. In a game that the Ravens needed to win to reach the playoffs, Rice played only two series in the first half, the first one and last one. "I really can't explain that adequately, in all honesty," coach John Harbaugh said. Five days after the season ended, the Ravens announced running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery would not be returning.
The latest trouble with Rice occurred on Friday night, when he was arrested and charged with simple assault. This is the first known arrest for Rice, who is one of the most active Ravens players in the community and has led an anti-bullying campaign in the Baltimore area.
Rice is only 27, but he just completed his sixth NFL season after a lot of carries in college. There has been talk about whether Rice is done as a premier back in this league. Going forward, all of his focus should be on convincing the Ravens that he can be the Ray Rice from previous seasons and not the one from recent months.