First off, I love Ray Rice. I became enamored of the little guy with the big heart at the outset of his collegiate career with the Scarlett Knights of Rutgers, also known as the state university of New Jersey, where I was born.
Rutgers doesn’t draw a lot T.V. games, but when they’re on, I watch. I’ve got serious family obligations when it comes to rooting for Rutgers. My middle brother went to law school at Rutgers-Camden and my cousin Dave graduated from Rutgers-Newark. (Yes, as you can imagine, college life in Camden and Newark is much different, than say, Ithaca, N.Y. or Asheville, N.C., which I’ve also visited over the years. Fewer drum circles for one thing. I remember visiting my cousin in Newark in the early-80s and noticing that the cars parked on his street had external front-hood locks and no hubcaps. Also, we had to step over a dead cat — that’s cat, with a “c” — on the sidewalk to get to his apartment. I digress…)
Rutgers had gone to exactly one bowl game in its 130-plus year history before Rice arrived on campus (main campus, that is, lucky for him, in New Brunswick). Then, with Rice toting the leather, they went to three straight bowls. The guy single-handedly resurrected a program as dead as long as King Tut. So, again I love Ray Rice.
Not to mention, two years ago as a reporter, I covered Rice's appearance at Grange Elementary in Dundalk and his generous, outgoing, kid-friendly personality was really something to see — and I don't mean just for a young professional football player. A few days ago, he led an anti-bullying rally at Merriweather Post in Columbia. I’m a big fan, okay? My mom, who is a huge football fan and still lives in New Jersey — she loves Ray Rice.
But if he puts together two more great years, like the one he had in 2011, it’ll be remarkable. If Rice puts together three big years, he’ll be under consideration as the best back of his generation. If he remains the Ravens' featured back for the duration of his five-year, $40 million contract, a long shot, at best, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Sportswriters and broadcasters these days refer to the short window of excellence for swimmers? Ha! They're like golfers compared to NFL running backs.
Of the running backs listed in the top 10 in rushing yardage last season (Rice was second), guess how many were also listed in the top 10 just three years ago? Half? Nope. Three or four? No. One — the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Turner.
Last year was Rice’s fourth in the league. Earl Campbell, George Rodgers, Billy Sims, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Bo Jackson, Joe Morris, Rodney Hampton, Jamal Lewis, Eddie George, Shaun Alexander, Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Ahman Green — just to name a few — all only mustered four or five great seasons. Jerome Bettis? Four seasons with more than a 4.0 rushing average and more than a 1,000 yards. The backs starring longer, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Tony Dorsett, are the game's all-time greats. If Rice, who has put together three stellar seasons in a row, has four truly big years left, he’ll reach LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk-status and his bust will go to Canton. It's a long shot.
While Rice doesn’t have sprinter speed like Faulk, Dorsett and Dickerson — he does make people miss, like Smith, Sanders and Payton. That's good.
The plan, in my mind, should be to keep a Ricky Williams-type back around to limit the wear and tear from blocking and the pounding between the tackles. Pitch it to Rice, throw it to him, run some draws and screens. Let him battle defensive backs when possible. As much as I hate to say it, Rice needs to get out-of-bounds when possible and live to fight another day.
That way, we’ll get our money’s worth. Or Steve Bisciotti will get his money’s worth. Wait, it’s still our money. Bisciotti’s just the middle man, right?
Did I say I love Ray Rice?