Soon after last season ended, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti challenged third-year player Joe Flacco to become a franchise-caliber quarterback in 2010.
Ravens running back Ray Rice took the message personally, as well.
"It wasn't just to Joe," said Rice, entering his third season. "It was to all the young players, including myself. Basically, he was saying the learning curve was over and the time is now."
Rice got the message. Oh, did he ever. Last season was a breakout year for the former Rutgers star as he rushed for 1,339 yards and gained an additional 780 yards on 78 catches.
Several national publications make Rice a favorite to win Offensive Player of the Year in the AFC. He certainly looks ready. There is virtually no fat on Rice's 5-foot-9, 212-pound frame. His abdominals are exceptionally tight. Muscles bulge from every part of his body, including his forehead.
Even his muscles have muscles.
"Look at him over there," said Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain after a recent practice. "He lives in the weight room all the time. I mean all the time! He is going to be a beast."
With the exception of Ray Lewis, Dawan Landry and Brendon Ayanbadejo, there are few players who work as hard as Rice in the offseason. He might be a small package, but he's a total package. He can bench-press 405 pounds and squat more than 500.
As soon as he heard Bisciotti's challenge, Rice ran to the weight room because he wanted to bulk up more to run between the tackles. Rice also wanted to become a nastier bodyguard for Flacco.
If you get a chance, check out those arms. It's showtime.
"If I was walking down the street and had to show off one part, it would be my arms," said Rice, laughing and responding to a question by a reporter. "You do a few curls to get the veins bulging and hmmmm, watch out.
"One thing I always think I need improvement on is pass-blocking. When guys see me in a game, their first initial move is to try to bull-rush me over, which, if I'm staying stout, I can cut them a few times to slow them up. I don't want anybody giving my quarterback no missed protection, no missed assignments."
But Rice's top priority will be running and catching the football. Rice can run inside with power, and he is elusive in space. He has soft hands, and his acceleration makes him hard to tackle one-on-one.
The concern is that Rice sneaked up on some teams last year. That won't happen in 2010, not after what he did to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots.
The little man will be a marked man.
"Well, last year I had to take an approach like that toward the end of the year when I knew guys were preparing to do different things to stop me," Rice said. "So I'm going to take what I learned and build it into this year. And that comes with more film study, knowing when I'm going to be double-teamed. I'm just ready to go out there every game knowing that I'm a guy the defense has to pay attention to."
There are some who think Rice touched the ball too often last season and that his body can't handle the workload. But offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is clever in the way he uses Rice. He doesn't pound him inside the tackles play after play like a power runner. Also, a lot of Rice's receptions are swing passes out of the backfield, putting him into one-on-one situations where he can run safely to the sidelines. These are quality touches.
Inside the red zone, Willis McGahee will probably be the main threat again. If the Ravens get a lead going into the fourth quarter and want to play power football to control the time, then they have McClain.
As a receiver, there won't be many changes for Rice even with the additions of receivers Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth. If anything, it should open up the offense -- and running lanes -- for Rice.
"We can spread guys out and still run the football," Rice said. "We have guys who can stretch the field, they can block, they can run and we should be able to do many things with the football when we have it."
The No. 1 priority, though, is winning games. And to win most of them, Rice has to touch the ball.
"I did produce over 2,000 all-purpose yards last year, so anything over 2,000yards, within the team aspect, I'm definitely going to be proud to do," Rice said. "If I had 2,000 yards and we didn't win any games, it wouldn't mean anything to me. Personally, I want to win. That's the overall goal, is to win."
Said Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, "I'm just glad he is on my team."
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