Football has evolved significantly since the days of the single-wing offense or the T-formation; backfields that were once cluttered with two or three talented backs have been cleaned out in favor of spread passing offenses with four or five receivers lined up out wide. And more than three decades since innovators like Don Coryell and Bill Walsh began to change conventional thinking about the passing game, quarterbacks and play-callers have taken it to new heights.
Three NFL quarterbacks passed for more than 5,000 yards in 2011, and the league as a whole set all-time highs in pass attempts (17,411) and gross passing yards (125,336), according to ESPN.
Rice accounted for 704 yards on 76 receptions, a third straight season with at least 60 catches receptions and 550 receiving yards. According to Football Outsiders, Rice is one of five running backs in NFL history with more than 200 carries and 60 catches in three straight seasons. (Marcus Allen, Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk and Priest and former Raven Priest Holmes are the others).
But while he acknowledges that Rice's receiving numbers are “colossal” compared with those of other backs, Aaron Schatz, the editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders, doesn't think that raises his value significantly because Rice might be asked to catch the ball less in another team's offense. The biggest difference, Schatz says, is few backs can line up as a wide receiver the way Rice can.
“The other thing is, we talk about a running back's workload,” Schatz said. “What we've found is that when you measure a running back's workload, carries matter much, much, much more than touches do. … By splitting his workload between carries and receptions, he's taking less physical punishment. … The way it's divided, he's not anywhere near the danger zone.”
Rice, who trails Lewis by 3,424 yards on the franchise's all-time rushing list, has averaged 284 carries in his three seasons as a starter. Lewis, who recently joined the tidal wave of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL, averaged 335 in his first three seasons.
And while workhorse running backs who average more than 20 carries a game — like Lewis in his prime — are becoming, in his words, “ancient dinosaurs,” he feels Rice deserves a new deal.
“He can run the ball. He can catch. I've seen him block. He's a good blocker. He's one of those guys that can stay in the game the whole time,” said Lewis, who retired after the 2009 season.
So what's a fair deal for Rice? His 2010 and 2011 statistics compare similarly to those of the Houston Texans' Arian Foster and the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy, who both were rewarded with five-year contract extensions this offseason. Foster's was for $43.5 million and McCoy's for $45 million. According to reports, Foster received $20.75 million in guaranteed money and McCoy got $20.765 million.
But Rice and his agent, Todd France, could be pursuing a contract like the ones the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson and the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson got last offseason. The Vikings made Peterson the NFL's highest-paid back with a seven-year, $100 million deal that includes $36 million guaranteed. Johnson got $53.5 million over four years with $30 million guaranteed.
“You have that sort of elite level of running back contracts in the $30 million guaranteed range, and then you have another tier with recent deals in the $21 million guaranteed range,” Brandt said. “That $9 million is a big difference. ... Is there a happy medium?”
A day before the deadline, the width of the gap between the player and the team is unknown. The Ravens have a policy of not discussing player contracts, and a call to France was not returned.
On Friday evening, Rice, who was hosting an anti-bullying outreach event in Columbia, declined to discuss specifics about the negotiations but said he is “always optimistic.”
“God has put me in a position where not too many people can say they've been,” Rice said. “I never played for the dollars and all of that other stuff. My rookie contract, quite frankly, you just signed it and go play football, so this is a little bit difference of an experience for me.”
It's unclear whether Rice will sign his franchise tender if he doesn't get a long-term deal by Monday or if he will hold out from training camp, which starts next week. He said last month at Lardarius Webb's charity softball game that he hoped to be back with this teammates soon.
Anthony Allen, Damien Berry and rookie Bernard Pierce will keep the backfield warm for Rice if he does hold out. But Allen acknowledged at last month's minicamp that “this is Ray Rice's team.”