Who carries on?

Harbaugh won't name starter, but Rice's numbers trend up

November 04, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Reaching the midway point of the season with a 5-3 record, the Ravens have positioned themselves to make a run at the playoffs.

But who exactly will be making that run for the Ravens: Willis McGahee or Ray Rice?

The pecking order in the Ravens' backfield became more clouded after rookie second-round pick Rice filled in for the injured McGahee and ran for 154 yards against the Cleveland Browns - the most by any running back in the NFL on Sunday.

So, should the Ravens go with experience and start McGahee against the Houston Texans? Or should they stick with the hotter runner and start Rice?

"I don't know if we know going into the game," coach John Harbaugh said yesterday. "We'll find out who is going to play more based on how we match up against this football team. Certainly, Ray has expanded himself with the things he can do and the confidence he builds in the coaching staff."

In Harbaugh's mind, it's not about McGahee or Rice. He said he thinks of the running game as McGahee and Rice.

Now that McGahee (knee, ankle and rib injuries) is expected to return Sunday, the distribution of carries will become a hot topic this week.

At this point, Rice and McGahee are running in opposite directions.

Rice averaged 7.5 yards a carry the past two weeks. Meanwhile, McGahee gained less than 3 yards a carry in three of his past four games.

Asked whether he has proven he can be a starting running back, Rice took a diplomatic approach.

"I'm embracing the role of my team. When I'm in there, I'm a starter," he said. "I do a great job of studying. I do a great job of watching. When it's my turn, I am always ready."

The two knocks on Rice coming out of Rutgers were his size (5 feet 8) and durability. But in Sunday's 37-27 win at the Browns, Rice showed his stamina when he broke a 60-yard run on his 21st carry of the game.

"He has a lot of tangibles that is bigger than his height and size," receiver Mark Clayton said. "He's going to be a great back for us."

Three reasons Rice should start

* Rice makes more big plays. One reason Rice lasted until the second round was that scouts pointed to his lack of breakaway speed. Really? Rice has yet to reach the end zone on a long run, but he has undoubtedly been the Ravens' most explosive running back.

In addition to two big runs Sunday (60 and 26 yards), Rice has had catches of 40 and 21 yards. With stiff arms and a low center of gravity, he is extremely tough to bring down in the open field.

* Rice is a better receiver. This has been the biggest surprise in Rice's game. In three college seasons, Rice had only 37 catches. In eight games with the Ravens, he has 18 receptions, second-most on the team.

Rice has been a dependable receiver, catching nearly everything thrown at him. The same can't be said of McGahee, who recently short-armed a pass in apparent fear of being hit. McGahee had a minimal impact in the passing game last season (a career-best 43 catches), but he never had more than 30 receptions in his previous three seasons.

* Rice is a better fit in the Ravens' shotgun offense. The Ravens' offense seems to be evolving toward more of a shotgun approach. Though that's what quarterback Joe Flacco ran in college, Rice appears just as comfortable taking that inside handoff and ripping off big gains.

In Sunday's game, Rice ran seven times out of the shotgun for 127 yards, an average of 18.1 yards a carry. That should keep defenses off balance and open up the passing game.

Three reasons McGahee should start

* McGahee has a knack for the end zone. Since he joined the Ravens, McGahee has significantly improved the Ravens in the red zone. He has scored 10 touchdowns in 20 career starts for the Ravens. Last season, McGahee scored a touchdown in seven straight games.

That has been the one thing teammates can joke about with Rice. He has been close so many times this season - he was stopped a few yards short on two runs in Cleveland - but he has yet to score a touchdown.

* McGahee is the bigger investment. Coaching choices should never be based on money, but it would be a pricey decision not to give the ball to McGahee. In 2006, the Ravens traded three draft picks to the Buffalo Bills to get him and then signed him to a seven-year contract that could be worth $40 million.

Though Rice received nearly $1.4 million this season ($1.1 million in signing bonus and $295,000 in salary), McGahee has gotten paid $13.5 million in bonuses from the team. The Ravens likely will have to keep McGahee next season because of that money. Even if they wanted to part ways with McGahee, the Ravens would take an $8 million hit.

* McGahee has a more proven track record. The excitement over Rice could be tempered by the defenses he has run against. Rice has led the Ravens in rushing the past two weeks, but his production has come against the Oakland Raiders (30th-ranked run defense) and the Browns (28th).

Unlike Rice, McGahee has a more extensive body of work. He has gained at least 1,100 yards in three of his four seasons and has averaged 72.4 yards a game over his career.

hey, jamison!

Each week, Baltimore Sun reporter Jamison Hensley will answer fans' questions about the Ravens. To submit a question, e-mail sports@baltsun.com. Provide your name and phone number so we can verify the e-mail.

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