Is Rice Running Past His Expiration Date?

If you want to tell Ray Rice that he's too small to be an every-down running back, or that his workload was too high at Rutgers, or that he'll need more versatility to survive in the NFL, you'd better be quick about it. Because if you're not, this speedy underclassman will zip right by you, leaving you wondering what your worries might have been.

The 5'9", 195-pound back understands the debits he receives about his size despite all his accomplishments. That said, he spoke at the 2008 Scouting Combine about the advantages to being undersized. "When I look at the NFL, how many small backs are carrying the load? I think that term 'small back' is used in a different way," he said. "I feel like being a small back can be an advantage. You've got a big old lineman (at) 6-6, once you get behind him, before you are two or three yards down the field, defenders probably can't even see you.

"Being small can be an advantage. Being small has a lot to do with the kind of heart you have. I run bigger than my size. I usually don't shy away from too much contact, which definitely at the next level you have to work on because everybody's bringing it. But I definitely run bigger than my size."

Citing Maurice Jones-Drew and Emmitt Smith as examples of those who have blazed a trail without poster-boy measurements, Rice specified how it is that a player can hide behind the lines and blow out of trash, leaving enormous defenders in his wake. "Emmitt had great feet and he used his line better than anyone I've ever seen, the way he set up his blocks," Rice said. "He used his fullback, he used every part of being small as an advantage. And that was real smart.

"Same thing Maurice Jones-Drew is doing now. He uses his size as an advantage with his power, he's compact, and with what he brings to the table. It's special. You see him popping runs and running back kickoff returns and you wonder how this guy is doing it. He uses his blocks very well. That's one thing I've watched."

When people watch Rice, one thing that raises concern is the fact that he's carried the ball so much before even taking a handoff in the NFL -- though his school-record 4,646 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns are impressive, the 910 total carries over the last three years gives people pause, and for good reason. Even the best backs have short shelf lives, and most under 200 pounds not only benefit from a dual-back system, they require it if they want to play past their first contracts.

To hit the "Curse of 370", Football Outsiders' line of demarcation for running back durability which states that backs who exceed 370 rushing attempts in a season face increased chances of future breakdown, one must take the ball 23.125 times per game. In his three-year college career, Rice has averaged 23.95 carries per game. He picked up 380 carries in 13 games in 2007 alone. This is where Rice's size -- and the odds he's trying to beat -- become major issues.

Of the 23 NFL backs who have rushed for 10,000 career yards, five have weighed in under 200 pounds for the majority of their careers -- Walter Payton, Thurman Thomas, Tiki Barber, Tony Dorsett and Warrick Dunn. Dunn, the prototype for today's waterbugs, never took more than 286 carries, or more than 53 percent of his team's rushing attempts, in a season. He also averaged 42.5 receptions per season through his first ten years.

This is what Rice must do if he wants to meet or exceed expectations -- he will have to share the load and get out wide to catch the ball.

Though he wants to be noted for his toughness, Rice agrees with the idea that versatility is the key to his future. "I actually ran the ball a lot at Rutgers and we stuck to our game plans," he said. "I definitely want to go out there and start catching the ball. I think that will stick out. It's not going to be a problem. I caught a lot of passes during practice and during spring ball where I was lined up in a slot and ran routes. That's just a part of my game that hasn't been seen.

"But with this weekend and all the events here and me being able to participate in all the events you'll definitely see a lot more to my game that probably wasn't shown on TV or shown on film. Catching the ball and running routes is definitely something I'll have to do in the NFL and I'll definitely be up to it."

He'd better be, and the team that drafts him had better be, as well. The backs throughout NFL history who have gone over 370 touches -- a very important difference than carries -- with at least 15 percent of those touches as receptions have a far longer shelf life. LaDanian Tomlinson, Roger Craig and Tiki Barber are among the backs whose 370-touch seasons have featured the lowest percentage of carries; anywhere from 76 percent (Tomlinson's 2003) to Faulk's 79 percent during stretches in which they were among the most productive in NFL history.

Just as important is the fact that versatility equals productivity in this case. Ask the 1989 Christian Okoye (372 touches, two receptions) or the 1980 Earl Campbell (384 touches, 11 receptions). Their careers as elite backs were basically over after those seasons.

Ray Rice's 380 carries in 2007 were bad enough, but his 25 receptions (37 career) put him on the wrong side of the curve in more ways than one.

"It's not a concern now obviously since I'm taking my game to the next level," Rice said at the Combine about the workload issue. "If I would have stayed in college, I definitely would have requested less carries and took not a back seat but added additional roles to my game. Now that I'm taking my game to the next level, (and) with so many teams using the two-back system, I would think that won't be a problem."

Maybe he can duck fate in the right system, but it will take a specific set of circumstances to undo what Rutgers may have done wrong.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail Doug here. Top Stories