Some form of the question is asked pretty much every time Ray Rice goes behind a microphone or faces reporters. After all, he has to crack at some point, doesn't he?
Five months after signing a contract extension that made him one of the NFL's highest paid running backs and seemingly solidified his status as the focal point of the Ravens' offense, Rice is on pace to finish with his fewest rushing and receiving yards since his rookie season. Barring a dramatic workload increase over the final two regular season games, Rice will have his fewest carries since 2009, his first year as a starter.
In his last game, Rice was held to 41 all-purpose yards, his lowest output of the season, and the Ravens were embarrassed by the Denver Broncos in their third straight loss. If there ever was a time for Rice to vent, this was it. Or so it seemed.
"If we execute at a high level, we execute on third down, there's no doubt in my mind that I'm coming out of the game with 18 to 25 touches," Rice said Wednesday when asked about the persistent questions about how he is used and his number of carries. "When you're getting three-and-outs, three-and-outs, three-and-outs, and then the other team is scoring, there's no time to hand the ball off to Ray Rice. That's just being honest about your touches. My touches are going to come when we execute at a high level. … I'm just trying to stay effective. Obviously, I know my role on the offense hasn't changed."
Had Rice not turned Joe Flacco's fourth-and-29 dump off into a first down in San Diego nearly a month ago, the Ravens would be entering Sunday's game against the New York Giants at M&T Bank Stadium with a four-game losing streak and sagging playoff hopes. Instead, the scintillating 29-yard dash propelled the Ravens to a victory over the Chargers and put them in position to sew up a playoff berth last week despite their third straight loss.
It also provided a season highlight for Rice, who found something on that fourth down that he hasn't experienced much of this season: space. The 25-year-old has still been the Ravens' most productive offensive player but his 2012 numbers have fallen below the high standard that he set last season when Rice posted a franchise record 15 touchdowns, led the NFL in yards from scrimmage and finished second in rushing yards.
He's currently 12th in the NFL in rushing (1,031 yards), 14th in yards per carry (4.5), 13th in yards per game (73.6) and 13th in carries (230). Such numbers aren't exactly what Rice had in mind when he signed a five-year, $35 million extension in mid-July.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I just got over 1,000 yards [but] like I said, it was a little different," said Rice who passed the 1,000-yard rushing plateau last Sunday, becoming the first player in Ravens' history to accomplish that in four straight seasons. "Yes, we want to be a lot better in the run game. We definitely do. That's something that I take pride in — our offensive line [takes pride in]. We want to be better. We want to execute, but we also don't want to be stupid with our runs."
The Ravens, who have a two-time Pro Bowl running back in Rice and a two-time Pro Bowl fullback in Vonta Leach, are ranked 22nd in the NFL in rushing yards per game (105.1), numbers that prompted Ravens coach John Harbaugh to say this week that the run-blocking needed to improve.
There have been some exceptions, like two weeks ago against the Washington Redskins who Rice gouged for 121 yards and a touchdown. Overall though, the diminutive running back hasn't consistently found the room or the opportunity to run, and the struggling Ravens' offense hasn't put enough drives together to allow Rice to find a groove.
"I think the more opportunities he gets, the better that he'll be," said Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell who replaced the fired Cam Cameron last week. "We have to be able to sustain drives. You get more plays, [Rice] is going to get more carries."
The performance of the patchwork offensive line is partly responsibility but there have been other contributing factors to Rice's numbers being down, many beyond the running back's control. Rice has more than 20 carries in a game just twice this season after eclipsing that number seven times last year. Last season, he averaged 23 touches per game. This year, he's averaging 20 as the Ravens have committed to a more passing heavy attack and Flacco is on pace for a career high in attempts.
"That connection gets made all the time, but it depends on the game situation," Harbaugh said. "[Rice] got the ball a lot in the first half [against Denver] and we weren't gaining too many yards. When you're behind, it's pretty hard to keep handing it off."
In games against the Broncos, New England Patriots and Houston Texans, the Ravens fell behind early, forcing them to go away from the running game. Other times, Flacco has found a rhythm and the Ravens have stayed with the pass. Then, there have been times where the Ravens have been forced to abandon the run because it hasn't been effective enough. The Ravens have played seven games this season against run defenses ranked in the top 10 in the NFL.
Still, Jamal Lewis, the franchise's all-time leading rusher who embodied the Ravens' run-first, smash-mouth style for years, said that he thinks Rice should be getting the ball more and he feels that it's "fair" to question whether the organization has strayed too far from a physical style of offense.
"[Former Ravens' coach] Brian Billick did not want to run the football. We were forced to run the football because we couldn't produce at quarterback and we had a great defense so we could get the ball quick," Lewis said. "But I think now, in order to compete these days, you have to be able to throw the football and I think that's what they're sticking with and what they're trying to find with Flacco. But at the same time, if you just play good defense and run the football, you stand a chance to win especially with a productive running back, and I think Ray Rice is that. I think he needs the ball more. Look at [the Minnesota Vikings'] Adrian Peterson. The reason that he is getting the opportunity to go for 2,000 yards is his quarterback situation is not as good."
Lewis spoke out regularly if he didn't feel like he was getting the ball enough and he said that he'd encourage Rice to do the same, even though he acknowledged that may not be in Rice's personality. Rice has actually worked hard to defuse any controversy about his touches, defending Cameron on several occasions and saying since Day 1 of the season that this is Flacco's offense. Really, his only visible display of frustration this season came when the Ravens decided to take a knee late in regulation with the game tied against Washington.
"He's handled it real well. A guy like Ray who has had the success that he's had, when things don't go right, he handles them like a pro," said Leach, one of Rice's closest friends on the team. "The statistics and everything else shows that if he touches the ball a lot, the chances we win are higher. But hey, he's handled it like a pro."
Rice, a New Rochelle, N.Y. native, claims that Sunday's game against the Giants has no extra significance for him. He does remember returning home following the Ravens' AFC championship game loss, which cost them a chance of facing the Giants in the Super Bowl, and hearing about it from New York fans.
But he has far bigger concerns this week. The Ravens have lost three games in a row, their offense has been in a funk for several weeks and their biggest weapon is trying to salvage an uneven season.
"It's not like we are preparing and we are about to pack our bags at the end of December," Rice said. "We are going into playoff football. We have to execute right now and win one to clinch the division, and then go ahead and start going to the playoff field."