Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice received a two-game suspension from the NFL on Thursday following his offseason arrest for domestic violence.
Rice was arrested following a Feb. 15 altercation in Atlantic City, N.J., in which he allegedly struck then-fiancee Janay Palmer. The 27-year-old has been accepted into a diversion program, which upon completion could lead to the charges being expunged.
Rice, who has played six years for the Ravens, met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last month after joining the diversion program. Goodell ultimately decided to suspend the running back for two games without pay and fine him an additional game check “for conduct detrimental to the NFL in violation of the league’s Personal Conduct Policy.”
In a letter to Rice, Goodell wrote, “Despite the court’s decision not to impose criminal punishment, the Commissioner determined, as he advised Rice, that the conduct was incompatible with NFL policies and warranted disciplinary action…. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.”
Rice’s suspension will begin on Aug. 30. He will be eligible for reinstatement Sept. 12. Rice may participate in all aspects of training camp and preseason games.
The running back will miss the season opener against AFC North champion Cincinnati on Sept. 7 and the Sept. 11 game on Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It is disappointing that I will not be with my teammates for the first two games of the season, but that’s my fault,” Rice said in a statement issued by the Ravens. “As I said earlier, I failed in many ways. But, Janay and I have learned from this. We have become better as a couple and as parents. I am better because of everything we have experienced since that night. The counseling has helped tremendously.”
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement: “We appreciate the thorough process the league office used to evaluate the incident with Ray Rice…. While not having Ray for the first two games is significant to our team, we respect the league’s decision and believe it is fair.”
Danny Woodhead is our front-runner for 2017 Comeback Player of the Year. The shifty, diminutive running back is so much more than his job title because he’s so much more dangerous as a pass catcher, creating matchup nightmares for defenses trying to account for him.
And if this all sounds familiar to Ravens fans, perhaps it should; for five seasons, from 2008-12, Ray Rice was that type of player in Baltimore. Unlike Woodhead, Rice was a feature back in the traditional sense — he’d rush 15-20 times a game and see another 3-5 passes thrown to him — but Woodhead has a chance to be that type of player in a Ravens offense desperately in search of playmakers.
Consider these similarities:
In 2013, Woodhead’s first season in San Diego, he rushed for 429 yards on 109 carries (4.0 YPC), caught 76 passes for 605 yards (8.0 YPC) and totaled eight touchdowns. That rushing effort ranked sixth in value-per-play among all running backs, according to Football Outsiders, but Woodhead finished No. 1 among pass-catching running backs, ahead of Darren Sproles, Gio Bernard, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles that season.
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Two years prior, in 2011, Rice had his best season. He rushed for 1,364 yards (4.7 YPC) and had 76 receptions for 704 yards (9.3 YPC). But he ranked just 25th in value-per-play as a runner, though he was No. 2 as a pass-catching back, behind only Sproles.
Woodhead was slightly less productive as a runner in 2015 — he had 98 carries for 336 yards — but he improved as a receiving threat, logging 80 receptions for 755 yards (9.4 YPC) and six touchdowns. He was again the top-rated pass-catching back, according to Football Outsiders.
Now the question becomes whether Woodhead’s reconstructed knee will allow him to play at previous levels.
“I wasn’t going to come back if I couldn’t do what I can do,” Woodhead said in March shortly after signing a three-year deal. “I wanted to be able to be the player that I’ve always been, that I’ve been the last two or three years. I believe I am. Otherwise, I wouldn’t try to come back. I’m an all-or-nothing person. That’s what they’re going to get here — all of me.”
Woodhead’s arrival comes at a time when the Ravens offense is in desperate need of a jump start. In 2012, the unit ranked 13th in efficiency before plummeting to 30th in 2013 and finishing 20th and 24th the last two seasons. He was originally signed days after it was announced that second-year running back Kenneth Dixon would miss the first four games of the 2017 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. But the Ravens’ offseason has been marred by injuries and that includes Dixon, who is now expected to miss the year after undergoing knee surgery in late July.
Now the depth chart at running back includes Lorenzo Taliaferro, Terrance West and Woodhead, but coach John Harbaugh remains clear on what Woodhead brings to this offense.
“Playmakers come in all kind of different styles,” the coach said in the spring. “I think Danny’s style is really unique. Those are the kind of weapons that we need to move the chains and score points.”
Harbaugh’s not kidding; the Ravens offense wasn’t even replacement level a season ago, averaging 21 points a game, which ranked 21st.
Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco both arrived in Baltimore in 2008 and led the team to five straight playoff appearances that culminated in a Lombardi Trophy after the 2012 season. And while early in his career Flacco was known to rely heavily on wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap, it was Rice that truly served as the young quarterback’s security blanket. Which makes Flacco’s comments about Woodhead all the more telling.
“Really, ever since we lost Ray Rice, we haven’t had a type of back that’s quite like how Ray was and quite like how Danny is in the passing game,” Flacco told the team’s website in June. “They just have a very good feel for when they’re open and how to get open, how to sit in holes, how to find my eyes and you can already see that. You can see he has a really good feel for those kinds of things.”
“He is a very versatile running back,” Harbaugh added. “He can carry the ball, but he is also a big part of the passing game. Both in protection — because he is good in protection — but really the route running and getting open and doing the things that will help Joe and give Joe a great matchup against linebackers and even against safeties in critical situations to help us move the chains.”
But one 32-year-old coming of ACL surgery won’t magically fix an offense that has sputtered in recent years. The reality is that the Ravens, long known for fielding dominant defenses, have struggled to find consistency on the other side of the ball.
The club has long tried to surround Flacco with playmakers; through the draft there have been Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in 2010, Torrey Smith in 2011, Crockett Gillmore in 2014, and Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams in 2015. In free agency, there have been Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth in 2010, Lee Evans in 2011, Jacoby Jones in 2012, Steve Smith and Owen Daniels in 2014, Mike Wallace in 2016, and most recently Jeremy Maclin, who was signed in June.
This is where we point out that since Flacco arrived in Baltimore, the Ravens have never had two 1,000-yard receivers in a season. Will Maclin’s addition change that?
That’s the two-year, $11 million question. On the surface, it certainly seems plausible. The expectation is that Wallace and Perriman will man the outside while Maclin will work the slot, much in the same vein as his predecessor, Steve Smith. But last season, only Wallace cracked 1,000 yards. Smith finished with 799 yards in 14 games while Perriman was limited to just 499 yards on 33 catches. Interestingly, Smith has a higher yards-per-catch career average than Maclin (14.3 vs. 13.5). Team’s don’t get extra credit for having multiple 1,000-yard receivers, but it does indicate a balanced offense that isn’t reliant on just one or two players, and that makes a defense’s job all the more difficult. That’s also where Woodhead’s versatility is an asset.
A year ago, Flacco was most effective in passes thrown 10-19 yards downfield, either in the middle of the field or to his right. In fact, these were the only two locations where Flacco graded positively, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades. Some of that success was because of Pitta, who had 86 receptions for 729 yards last season. But he was released after a career-threatening hip injury and the team later lost Gillmore for the year after he suffered a knee injury.
Maclin, who excels in the slot, will have to pick up some of that slack, as will Woodhead, who in 2015 did most of his damage in the passing game within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Like Woodhead, Maclin was injured for parts of 2016 after a strong showing the season before.
In 2015, Maclin started 15 games with the Chiefs and had 87 catches for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns. He ranked sixth in catch rate — behind the likes of Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin, Larry Fitzgerald and Danny Amendola — hauling in 79 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Added bonus: Six of his eight scores came when he was in the slot.
The hope is that Maclin, who is now healthy, can replicate that 2015 success. And just as Woodhead’s game resembles Rice’s, Maclin follows Steve Smith, who was dominant in the slot during his three years in Baltimore.
The Ravens need a lot to go right to get back to the playoffs, and so far 2017 hasn’t been kind. The team has already lost seven players to injury or retirement and Flacco was sidelined early in camp with a troublesome back. But this group has never been confused for a points-scoring juggernaut during the Flacco era, instead relying on a stout defense and an opportunistic offense to win games. Woodhead, who spent three seasons with the Patriots, knows this formula all too well.
“I wanted to come [to Baltimore] because I believe in what this organization believes in and that’s winning,” he said this spring. “I hated these guys when I was in New England and lost the AFC Championship Game. And usually those are the teams that you want to play for.”