The hiring of Gary Kubiak as the Ravens’ new offensive coordinator has been overwhelmingly praised by most experts, but what it means for veteran running back Ray Rice remains to be seen.
Known to prefer bigger backs with better downhill ability in his days with Houston and Denver, Kubiak didn’t go out of his way to single out the three-time Pro Bowl selection with praise at his introductory press conference as Rice will need to rebound from the worst season of his career. The former Texans head coach didn’t say Rice wouldn’t be his feature back, either, but 2014 will clearly be a crossroads in the 2008 second-round pick’s career.
“If they’ll get downhill, we’ll do fine,” said Kubiak when asked to describe what kind of back he prefers in his system. “[They’ve had] some great running backs here that have been very successful. We told John [Harbaugh] we think they fit what we do very well. It’s our job now to go teach our system and get them comfortable with it. But, it always gets back to doing what your players do best. We’ve assured John that’s what we’ve got to do; that’s what we’ve got to go find out.”
Harbaugh made it clear on Friday that he expects to see a lighter Rice after he rushed for just 660 yards and averaged a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry this past season while dealing with the effects of a hip flexor strain suffered in Week 2. Of course, Rice wasn’t the only Baltimore running back to struggle as Bernard Pierce averaged just 2.9 yards per attempt in his second NFL season and underwent rotator cuff surgery earlier this weeek.
Entering the third season of a five-year, $40 million contract signed in 2012, Rice is assured of a roster spot in 2014 because cutting him would be more costly to the salary cap in dead money than it is to keep him, but the 27-year-old will need to prove himself worthy of being the starter like virtually everyone on an offense that finished 29th in the NFL last season.
“I think Ray’s determined to be the best he can ever be, and I know Gary likes Ray,” Harbaugh said in an exclusive interview with WNST.net. “It’s going to be up to all our players. Everybody’s going to have to come in and prove themselves. I’m not going to sit here and anoint anybody ‘the guy.’
“Ray Rice is a heck of a back in this league, but Ray has said — and I totally agree — that he can’t be playing at 216 pounds. He was 207 [pounds], I think, his first year. He’s not gotten fat, [but] he’s gotten thick through all the weightlifting. We’ve got to find a different way to train Ray.”
Rice vowed at the end of the season to come back in the best shape of his life, but it’s difficult to explain how much his poor production can be attributed to health and poor conditioning, the struggles of the offensive line, and even the reality of Father Time as he enters his seventh season at a position where the shelf life generally isn’t very long.
The Rutgers product also carried the ball an incredible 910 times in three seasons for the Scarlet Knights, which is additional wear on his legs that can’t be dismissed when looking at his entire body of work. Rice often dealt with defenders in the backfield as soon as he took the handoff in 2013, but he wasn’t able to show the same overall elusiveness while averaging a career-worst 5.5 yards per reception and ranking 34th in the NFL in yards after contact.
Harbaugh knows Rice has plenty to prove in 2014, but the head coach isn’t doubting the back’s ability if he puts in the work this offseason.
“Was he in the greatest shape of his life? No, he said he wasn’t,” Harbaugh said. “That’s on Ray. You’ve got to come back in the greatest shape of your life every year, especially as you get older. The older you get, the harder you’ve got to work. That’s just the way to keep even and give yourself a chance. Ray knows that. He’s going to have to come back in the greatest shape of his life. If he does that, I would not bet against Ray Rice.”
To listen to the entire interview with Ravens coach John Harbaugh from Radio Row in New York, click HERE.