Despite small stature, Rice a big leader for Ravens

October 22, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

Ray Rice has height issues, which is not exactly a secret. At 5 feet 8, he can look more like one of the Keebler Elves than one of the NFL's top running backs.

Naturally, the rest of the Ravens try not to make him feel self-conscious about his size.

Take the Ravens' weekly media sessions out at the Castle. Often, the player at the podium before Rice — Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, whoever — will introduce him, then quickly adjust the microphone to a height more suitable for a 12-year-old.

It always gets a laugh from reporters. We're such cheap dates.

Then there's the trash-talking Rice does with Ray Lewis, which often takes the form of a surrealistic Abbott and Costello routine. Rice and Lewis love to joke about who'd prevail in a head-to-head matchup if they played on different teams.

Except in this case, it would be more like a head-to-chest matchup for Rice.

"You can't tackle me," he'll taunt No. 52.

The great linebacker will snort and look at the rest of the Ravens like: Is the little man out of his mind?

Then Lewis will growl: "If I can see you behind those big linemen you hide behind, you're done."

But for all the abuse they give the good-natured Rice, the Ravens firmly believe he's the best all-around running back in the league.

Going into Monday night's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Rice is averaging 140 yards from scrimmage (398 rushing, 302 receiving), third best in the league. And his 122.1 scrimmage yards per game dating back to 2009 ranks first in the NFL.

No one's better at taking a swing pass in the backfield and exploding for a big play.

"The more he touches the ball, the better of a team we are," said Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson.

Rice is also emerging as one of the team's leaders. Maybe you heard what happened at halftime of the Ravens-Houston Texans game last week.

The Ravens led, 10-7. But the offense looked listless. There was no panic — the Ravens don't do panic. Yet there was definitely a sense of something being off, of things not being quite right.

At some point, Rice stood and addressed the team — although a few Ravens questioned whether he was actually standing, saying it was hard to tell. (What, you thought they'd lay off him just because it was a game?)

Rice wouldn't go into the details of exactly what he said, probably fearing it violated some Ravens code of omerta that could get him whacked.

But the gist of his message?

"I just told the guys that it doesn't matter what the play call is," he said. "As long as we execute, we're going to be tough to beat."

OK, it wasn't a half-time speech for the ages.

It wasn't Rockne telling the boys to win one for the Gipper. It wasn't Lombardi thundering about winning being the only thing.

But it was effective in its own way. And it didn't surprise the Ravens, who have watched the fourth-year running back become more and more assertive.

"He's been a leader for us from the first day of camp," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He talks to our guys all the time about execution. That's his thing. We're going to be physical, now let's make sure we execute.

"What does that mean? That means doing all the little things well and right. And he's on himself about doing that, too. He knows he's not perfect, either."

When I asked Joe Flacco about Rice's little pep-talk, the quarterback smiled and joked: "Ray is always trying to run his mouth and be that vocal guy."

Then Flacco grew serious.

"Hey, to be a great leader, you have to be one of the better players in the locker room — I mean, normally," he said. "You have to go out there and prove it on the field. And Ray has done that.

"You know, me and him came into this league together, and we're getting older and older and more comfortable. We're becoming the veteran guys. And I'm sure that's how he feels.

"You know, we're a team that gets the reputation for talking and doing all kinds of stuff like that. But we really go about our business pretty quietly and go out there and try to win football games. That's what he is, really. He goes out there, he plays, he leads by example. And every now and then he has a little bit to interject."

Except with Rice, who can be kind of chatty, you get the feeling it won't just be every now and then. And he won't be interjecting just a little bit, either.

Which is fine with the Ravens. They figure he's earned the right to talk — all he wants.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "Norris and Davis Show."

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