Why the Lions MUST Sign Ray Rice!!!


In my previous article we set the parameters for the type of offense that best compliments an elite defense. At the article’s conclusion, I alluded to a follow-up article that would unveil a player I thought the Detroit Lions MUST sign in order to field such an offense. Today, I identify that player as Ray Rice.

I know, I know; Ray Rice?

I can hear proverbial jaws dropping throughout Lions Nation with the unveiling of that name. After all, last we saw of Ray Rice he was the subject of viral video that captured his horrendous act of domestic violence. To make things worse, Rice’s final impression on the field seemed to indicate he was no longer an effective running back, so why in the world MUST the Lions sign him? We’ll address that question and delve into the current NFL Climate as it relates to how domestic violence is handled.

May 27, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy (76) smiles during OTAs at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Notwithstanding my personal zero tolerance stance on the issue of domestic violence, an objective writer has a responsibility to look at the incident in light of the protocols set forth by the NFL. In addition to Ray Rice there were other members of the NFL Fraternity who committed acts of domestic violence last season. Most prominent among them were Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson and Ray McDonald.

It’s well outside the scope of this work to attempt to adjudicate any of the persons involved in these crimes in print. Similarly, it is not our purpose to attempt to mandate what the NFL SHOULD do on matters involving domestic violence.

Instead, our aim is merely to chronicle that crimes were committed and penalties were issued by the NFL, individual teams and sometimes both. In each incident involving high profile players the issues were resolved and the players were given additional opportunities to move forward with their careers.

The sole exception to the above is seen in the curious case of Ray Rice. Rice was once heralded as one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL, yet at the time in which this piece was written he has not received an opportunity to resume his career.

While I find it challenging to empathize with anyone who has brutally victimized another and subsequently finds themselves in a self-inflicted state of injury, the current NFL Climate suggests Rice is fully entitled to a 2nd chance.

As a Lions fan who is cognizant of my favorite team’s roster needs, I sincerely hope Rice gets a shot at redemption in Detroit. I explain why below.

One of the most compelling reasons a General Managers might choose to deny a player a second chance is their inability to produce on the field. However, this shouldn’t hold any relevance in making a decision on Ray Rice. Consider Rice’s resume:

  • Three-time Pro Bowl Selection (2009, 2011 & 2012)
  • Two-time All-Pro (2009 & 2011)
  • Voted by Peers as a top 100 Player in 2011, 2012 & 2013
  • Posted four consecutive seasons (2009-2012) with 1100+ rushing yards.
  • Eclipsed 2000 total yards from scrimmage in 2009

Doug Ferrar of the Shutdown Corner describes Ray Rice’s game as thus:

"“Since he came out of Rutgers in 2008 as one of those “too-small/too-slow” guys who had to prove the world wrong, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has used a life-sized chip on his shoulder, and a special brand of determination, to make himself into one of the NFL’s more indispensable players. Not only has he been Baltimore’s franchise back every year since 2009, he’s ranked in the top three in yards from scrimmage every season from ’09 through 2011.”"

When Rice’s contract was terminated by the Ravens, not only did he leave the team as the Ravens’ 2nd leading all-time rusher, but also held the franchise’s 2nd highest total in terms of yards from scrimmage.

Also at SLR: Faces of the Franchise: NFC North Division

Rice hasn’t only excelled at amassing stats; he’s also been a clutch player who’s helped his team to wins. One of Rice’s most memorable clutch plays occurred in week 12 of the 2012 season that ended in a Superbowl victory. The Ravens were trailing the Chargers by 3-points with less than 2-minutes left in the game.

According to ESPN’s Win Probability Tool, the Ravens had just a 23 percent chance of winning the game at this juncture. The Ravens evaluated their options then decided to put the ball in Ray Rice’s hands. Joe Flacco threw a 1-yard swing pass that ended in a 29-yard gain thanks to Rice’s uncanny ability to gain yards after the catch. The team’s trust in Rice proved well-placed as the Ravens went on to win their contest vs the Chargers and kept their playoff hopes alive.

Jan 4, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell reacts on the sideline during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The above begs the question what happened to Ray Rice in 2013?

Before I unveil the answer to that question, permit me to state I am a staunch Caldwell supporter.

I favored Jim Caldwell when there was speculation the Lions preferred Ken Whisenhunt. I believed (and still believe) he was the perfect personality type to infuse poise and calm into the team after Jim Schwartz’s departure. Caldwell knows the intricacies of the passing attack as well as or even better than any coach in the NFL.

SideLion Report’s own Mike Payton aptly describes Caldwell as a ‘Quarterback Whisperer due to his [Caldwell’s] track record in developing quarterbacks. As for addressing the question what happened to Ray Rice the short answer is Jim Caldwell happened.

I labored hard to explain away the findings of my research. Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of fact kept pointing to Jim Caldwell’s influence on the offense as the seminal reason Ray Rice suffered through an unproductive season in 2013. Consider this in Rice’s first full year under Caldwell his numbers declined from 1143 rushing yards with 4.4 yards per carry in 2012 to 660 rushing yards with 3.1 yards per carry in 2013.

We saw a very similar state of decline in Detroit with Reggie Bush. In 2013, Reggie Bush became the first Lions running back to rush for over 1000 yards since Kevin Smith eclipsed that threshold in 2004. A season later, Bush rushed for a mere 297 yards, the lowest rushing output in his career for seasons in which he started more than 6 games. The Lions as a team rushed for fewer yards in 2014 than at any other time during the Mayhew administration. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2008 winless season to find another time in which the Lions turned in such low production from their rushing offense.

We Lions fans blamed the disappointing output on Bush’s dancing running style, injuries, issues with the offensive line and even new Lions Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi. Scarcely was Head Coach Jim Caldwell associated with the decline, but the facts suggest at least some blame should have been ascribed to him.

The numbers in support of the above conclusion are numerically substantiated. In the table below, I’ve listed where Jim Caldwell’s rushing offenses have ranked when he held a head coach or offensive coordinator position in the NFL.

As can be seen from the above data, Jim Caldwell has never created a rushing offense that eclipsed 100 average rushing yards per game or that ranked outside the bottom 10 in rushing offense over the course of a season. Upon closer inspection, one can see Caldwell’s average rushing offenses rank 29th overall making them the 4th worst rushing offenses in the NFL. Not wanting to accept that my beloved coach was THIS bad at creating a rushing offense I attempted to explain my initial results away to the Colts having fashioned their roster to pass the ball rather than run it. Therefore, I looked at how the Ravens (a team that has historically been committed to the run) performed Pre-Caldwell, with Caldwell and Post-Caldwell. I also threw the Lions in the mix for Pre & with Caldwell as there is no relevant data for Post Caldwell in Detroit as yet. The results are listed below. Be advised, the data is arranged such that lower is better.

As you can see from the chart above, the 2012 Ravens held the 11th best rushing offense prior to Caldwell assuming the reigns as Offensive Coordinator. Under Caldwell in 2013, the Ravens rushing offensive rank fell 19 places to 30th overall. A year later and with very little noteworthy changes in roster personnel, Gary Kubiac restored the Ravens rushing attack to the 8th best unit in football. As for the Lions, Scott Linehan led the Lions to the league’s 17th ranked rushing offense in 2013. In his first year as Head Coach, the Lions rushing offense fell 11 spots to become the 5th worst rushing attack in the NFL.

While there certainly are factors other than Jim Caldwell that led to declines in both Baltimore and Detroit, the totality of the data suggests crafting a viable rushing offense is not one of our beloved coach’s strongest suites.

As such, Caldwell needs help in the form of more talent at the running back position. As presently constituted, the Lions have assembled a stable of running backs that is mostly comprised of undrafted players.

While Joique Bell has an inspirational story that I hope he chooses to release as an autobiography one day, injuries are becoming a concern that threaten the team’s depth. Ameer Abdullah, the team’s 2nd round pick in this year’s draft is an immensely gifted player whom I think will take the NFC North by storm, but he may not be an every down back. There’s a clear void at the top of the running back rotation that is screaming for the inclusion of Ray Rice.

August 15, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Detroit Lions running back Mikel Leshoure (25) during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Lions 27-26. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Players with character concerns like Mikel Leshoure, Titus Young and Aaron Berry to name a few have jaded the front office to such an extent the team has become extremely reluctant to pursue players who could potentially carry an inkling of trouble.

While I support this concept in general I do think it should be flexible enough to accommodate measured investment in players who may have a single mark against them, but have not shown a pattern of self-destructive behavior.

I believe Rice to be such an individual. He’s paid his debt to the NFL, resolved the legal matters that led to his suspension and has even entered individual and couples counseling.

Speaking of Rice, new Lion and former Rice teammate Haloti Ngata vouched for his character stating:

"“He’s a great guy on the field, in the locker room. He’s a great community guy. He does a lot for the community, and so of course I think he would be a great addition to this team,” Ngata said. “I love playing with him, I trusted him. You feel bad for his situation. You just hope nothing but the best for him.”"

In my humble opinion, other than LeSean McCoy there hasn’t been a better running back available this off-season than Rice.

Now that we’ve advanced deep into free agency the top runners still available include: Pierre Thomas, Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Johnson and Ben Tate. None of those players have the talent or skill set Ray Rice possesses.

As a Lions fan, ask yourself which backfield do you want opponents to have to worry about defending; one that is comprised of Rice, Bell and Abdullah or one that includes Bell, Abdullah and some combination of Riddick, Winn or Zenner?

In my last work I defined the 2000 rushing yard mark as a goal the Lions offense should strive to attain to better support the team’s defense. An additional reason to attempt to bolster the rushing attack is the changing landscape within the NFC North.

Once nicknamed the ‘black and blue’ division because of tough defenses and stout rushing attacks, more recently the name became reminiscent of a relic from the past because passing offense and soft defense became signature for the division.

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Things have changed drastically now.

When Green Bay acquired Eddie Lacy, the Lions became the sole team in the division who did not have a true #1 running back. Stout defenses are also on their way back to the division with Minnesota adding a great defensive-minded head coach in Mike Zimmer and his GM working the draft in such a manner as to resurrect the ‘Purple People Eaters’ defense of old.

Though probably still a season away, Chicago too should see a re-birth of their ‘Monsters of the Midway’ defense as defensive guru’s John Fox and Vic Fangio install their system.

In light of the above, acquiring Ray Rice isn’t simply some luxury the Lions could decide they cannot afford. To the contrary, Rice’s acquisition could prove a necessary move that prevents the team from falling behind in an increasingly competitive division.

Next: 2016 NFL Draft Watch: Part 3

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