It is an affliction that happens to every dominant running back not named Bettis, Martin, Smith or Brown: One day he is humming along displaying the skills and dominance that have carried him to Pro Bowls. The next, he is an impostor in that Pro Bowler’s jersey. The cuts aren’t so quick. The power not so explosive. The runs not so impressive.
At merely 26 years old, could this happen to the Baltimore Ravens‘ perennial offensive MVP? Really? Already? I thought we had three, maybe four more years before he hit the proverbial and seemingly literal, when it comes to running backs, wall. Let’s pump the brakes before we let Rice’s quarter pole raw statistics of three yards per carry and four yards per catch tell the story.
For starters, Rice is an “old” 26, if you will. He will turn 27 come January and has been in the league since he was 21. At Rutgers, Rice was far and away the best player on his team and carried the offense his final two years in New Brunswick. His final year before he entered the draft, Rice had a ridiculous 405 touches. By comparison, Montee Ball, a workhorse college back that some scouts feared had been used too hard as an amateur, had only 366 touches his final season at Wisconsin.
Rice had a bit of a reprieve his rookie season when he split time with veteran Willis McGahee, but after that he again carried the load for an offense that never saw consistent production from the passing game. As Rice’s talent took over, and eventually made McGahee expendable, it was four straight seasons between 318 and 370 touches per game.
As we again look back to college, that makes six out of seven seasons when Rice accumulated at least 318 hard-earned runs and catches. To compare with a Pro Bowl back of the not-too-distant past, Eddie George, the poster boy for over-worked running backs, had six such straight seasons (including college) before he saw a precipitous drop off in production. George never again averaged over four yards per carry after his age 26 season.
To make matters worse for Rice and the Ravens, Bernard Pierce, drafted to help take the load off of Rice and slow his eventual decline, may not be the talented counterpart we thought we saw as a rookie. Pierce is averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per carry. A backup’s lack of rhythm cannot be at fault here, as in Week 2 and 3, minus an injured Rice, Pierce saw a starter’s load of the carries and simply did not produce.
Granted, it is way too soon to toss Rice aside. Even when LaDainian Tomlinson passed his prime, he was still an effective pass catcher and excellent complementary player for a winning squad, a role Rice should be able to emulate if and when his quickness, burst and durability are on the decline.
However, for a back used as frequently as Rice, the signs of potential decline are there. If Ravens fans have seen the last of Rice as a Pro Bowl back and 2,000 total-yard threat, there is only one thing to be said: It’s been a heck of a run.