Wearing a sharp designer suit, Ravens running back Ray Rice exited M&T Bank Stadium late Monday night looking as fresh and content as he did at any point during his team record-breaking 2011 season.
He had just scored two touchdowns and gained 93 yards of offense in the Ravens' 44-13 blowout victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, and he did it while touching the ball only 13 times. That kind of workload for the Pro Bowl running back last year inspired finger pointing inside and outside of the Ravens' locker room. On this night, it sure seemed to be something that Rice could get used to, especially given the result.
"Coming into this year, it was Joe Flacco's offense," Rice said, showing deference to his quarterback. "It starts with him, and we just follow his lead."
The Ravens, who face the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, signed Rice to a five-year, $35 million deal in July, making him one of the league's highest paid running backs and signifying their commitment to him as one of the focal points of their offense.
That, everybody with the team insists, hasn't and won't change any time soon, even as the Ravens' offense makes the transition from a grind-it-out group to an up-tempo, no-huddle outfit that frequently puts the ball and much of the decision making in the hands of Flacco, their fifth-year quarterback.
"My role is never changing. My role is actually making other guys better," Rice said. "When teams come in and they forget about me, I have the capability of lighting them up. What we're doing right now, other guys — not that they've never stepped up — they're just making the plays that they've always been capable of making. When you have me in the game, they have to respect it. That's one thing you want in this league, respect from other defenses to know where you are at all times because you have the capability of making a big play. What you're seeing now is Joe is taking advantage of that.
"You evolve with the change. We still have our run game. I don't want anyone to think that because we passed the ball a lot last week that we forgot how to run the ball. We didn't. When we ran, we were effective. It just so happened that Joe had that defense dialed up and we executed."
While Flacco threw 29 times for 299 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati in a performance that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, Rice carried the ball 10 times for 68 yards and caught three passes for 25 yards.
"I think Ray's got to be a big part of it," Flacco said. "Obviously, the other night he didn't have a ton of touches but when he did touch the ball they were pretty meaningful … Just because he had however many touches he had doesn't mean he's not going to have a lot more than that the next week. I'm sure if you talk to him it's a good thing for him when he can have that many touches and have that impact on the game and it's going to be able to keep him healthy and be a plus for us later in the year."
Rice's workload was obviously influenced by the Ravens' big lead late in the game which allowed Ravens coach John Harbaugh to rest Rice and get some work for young backups Bernard Pierce and Anthony Allen. But even in building the three-touchdown margin, the Ravens used their 25-year-old running back mostly in a supporting role.
In their first two drives, one resulting in a field goal and the other in a touchdown, Rice touched the ball on four of 16 plays.
"I think when you put more guys out there touching the ball that are capable, you like spreading those touches around. Hopefully, Ray's touches are that much more effective as a result of that," Harbaugh said. "We're not really counting touches, per se. Over the course of the season, he is going to get his touches, but I am more concerned with him getting his production. That, to me, is the important thing."
Twenty five players got more carries than Rice did in Week 1 , including the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson, who tore up his knee in late December and didn't play in the preseason, and Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, who held out and didn't report until a week before the season opener.
En route to rushing for 1,364 yards last year, the second highest total in the NFL, Rice carried the ball 291 times. Only Jones-Drew (343) and the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Turner (301) carried it more. However, Rice got 10 or fewer carries in four different games, three of them Ravens' losses. After the defeat in Seattle in which Rice had only five attempts, linebacker Terrell Suggs publicly questioned the play calling, and much of the blame from the fans was placed on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Asked about Rice's workload Monday and the fine line between the no-huddle and potentially preserving his running back for later in the season, Cameron said, "We're really not going down that road and worrying about that. One thing about Ray, he's a smart football player. He understands the big picture of football. He understands why we do what we do. He knows how he can impact the play off of the stat sheet … I really like where his mindset is, and I think he's like most great players that get with a good group of players; they realize that they don't all have to do it themselves, and they understand what their role is on each play."
Even with a new offensive philosophy, Harbaugh, Cameron and running back coach Wilbert Montgomery have been adamant that Rice will still be featured. A couple of weeks after Rice signed his new deal, Montgomery remarked that "you don't buy a new car and … just part it in the garage. You drive it."
Several players and football analysts cautioned that reading anything into one game would be foolish. Plenty of teams run out of the no-huddle and the Ravens will be one of them.
"I have the same role in the offense, but sometimes my job might be taking two defenders out of the play to clear it out for our receivers or sometimes it might be protecting Joe. My role has not changed," Rice said. "When they check to a run, let's make it work. Last season, I didn't start getting the bulk of my carries until the end of the year anyway. Right now, it's just time to connect with the offense."
If it was up to Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, the Ravens would run the ball every play. However, Leach conceded that Rice will probably finish this season with fewer carries and he didn't feel that was a bad thing.
"I think he'll be more effective with the carries that does have," Leach said. "We're going to be right there where we want to be. You have to look at how this team is built. We have a lot of weapons on offense. We have a lot of ways that we can attack a defense and we're going to attack in every way we can. The running game will not be forgotten. I'll guarantee you that.
Rice has never complained publicly about how much he's getting the ball and he's not about to start.
"I'll be right where I need to be and if my carries are less and we're winning games, I'm satisfied. It will probably add three years to my career," Rice said with a laugh. "The moral of the story is I'm playing to win a championship. I'm not playing for a contract anymore. All that is behind me. My role on this team is to number one, be a leader for this offense, get our team back to the playoffs and it's my job when my number is called to go out and execute and make plays. That's what I've always done around here."
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