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Is Ray Rice Already Washed Up?

Rice is averaging just over five feet, nine inches per carry

Rice is averaging just over five feet, nine inches per carry.

In many ways, the post-Ray Lewis Ravens have flown under the radar. The defending Super Bowl champions are just 3-5, thanks mostly to a mediocre offense. But unless you have Ray Rice on your fantasy team, you probably haven’t noticed just how rough a season the star running back is having. Of course, “Ray Rice” is just a euphemism for “Ray Rice, running behind the Ravens offensive line, playing alongside Joe Flacco and the rest of his Baltimore teammates.” Rice is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry on 97 carries, well below the 4.5 YPC career average he produced prior to 2013. Backup running back Bernard Pierce isn’t doing any better, putting up the same average on 85 rush attempts. As a team, Baltimore is averaging just 2.78 yards per rush, making the Ravens one of just six teams since the merger to average fewer than 2.80 yards per carry through nine games.

As you might expect, much of the blame falls on the Baltimore offensive line. In particular, tackles Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie have been terrible, so much so that McKinnie was traded to Miami. Pro Football Focus also gives poor run-blocking grades to Ed Dickson, Dallas Clark (unsurprisingly), and Vonta Leach (very surprisingly). I haven’t watched enough of Baltimore to tell you why the Ravens have struggled so significantly to run the ball, but I can provide some perspective on how poorly Rice’s numbers are.

We don’t have play-by-play data going back to 1960, but we do have game-by-game data back that far. I went back and noted every running back who had a season-to-date yards per carry average below 2.80 following the game where he recorded his 97th carry. The table below shows the 43 players to do so from 1960 to 2012, sorted in reverse chronological order. The last player was former Raven Chester Taylor, and here is how his line reads: In 2010, playing for the Bears at age 31, Taylor had 105 carries for 252 yards, producing a 2.4 yards per carry average, following the game where he received his 97th carry of the year. The rest of the season, he had 7 rushes for 15 yards, a 2.14 YPC average.

Chester Taylor2010CHI311052522.47152.14
Chris Perry2008CIN27982582.636111.83
Rudi Johnson2007CIN281012672.64692303.33
Marcel Shipp2005ARI27972412.48602103.5
Curtis Martin2005NYJ321052852.711154503.91
Eddie George2003TEN301093042.792037273.58
Eddie George2001TEN281062902.742096493.11
Adrian Murrell1999ARI291032572.5902963.29
Natrone Means1999SDG271032692.61980.89
Robert Holcombe1998STL23972272.34133
Jamal Anderson1997ATL251092732.51817294.03
Larry Centers1997ARI29982562.613206.67
Karim Abdul-Jabbar1997MIA23982732.791856193.35
Lawrence Phillips1996STL211153102.7783224.13
Marshall Faulk1996IND23982732.791003143.14
Harold Green1993CIN251022432.381133463.06
Rodney Culver1992IND23992012.03221205.45
Heath Sherman1991PHI24992662.697131.86
Garry James1988DET251082922.7742603.51
Allen Rice1988MIN26972652.7313574.38
Keith Byars1988PHI251032872.79492304.69
Tony Collins1986NWE271103042.76461082.35
Keith Byars1986PHI23972712.79803063.83
Clarence Williams1980SDG25972582.66000
Rickey Young1980MIN27972662.7433852.58
Benny Malone1979WAS271042542.44722183.03
Don Hardeman1979BAL271002752.759171.89
Larry Schreiber1975SFO281002782.7834591.74
Ron A. Johnson1974NYG27972182.25000
Larry Brown1974WAS271022612.56611692.77
Floyd Little1974DEN321042772.6613352.69
MacArthur Lane1973GNB311052542.42652744.22
Larry Brown1973WAS261183202.711555403.48
Lee Bouggess1971PHI23972622.7000
Clint Jones1971MIN261022812.75783945.05
Lee Bouggess1970PHI221102902.64491112.27
Hoyle Granger1969HOU25972602.68894805.39
Floyd Little1967DEN251042872.7626943.62
Abner Haynes1966DEN29972352.4232692.16
Tom Moore1966RAM28992502.535224.4
Joe Auer1966MIA251002562.56211607.62
Mike Lind1964SFO241002562.56000
Bill Mathis1963NYJ251052702.572-2-1

One name on that list inspires some hope: Atlanta’s Jamal Anderson had a miserable start to the ’97 season, rushing 109 times for just 273 yards. Then he averaged four yards per carry the rest of the way, and in 1998, rushed for 1,846 yards and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

Of course, that’s just one example. Most of the players in recent memory to perform as poorly as Rice has played were essentially washed up. It’s too early to know if that’s the case with Rice, but it’s a fair question to ask in light of Rice’s slow start.

I ran one other query, looking at all running backs since 1970 who:

  • played in at least 8 games in three straight years
  • Averaged at least 70 rushing yards per game over the prior three years, taking an average of the season averages (Rice averaged 78 rushing yards per game from 2010 to 2012)
  • Averaged at least 60 rushing yards in Year N-1 (Rice averaged 71 rushing yards per game in 2012)

How many of those backs averaged fewer than 50 rushing yards per game in Year N? Just twenty:

Running backYearTmAgen-1n-2n-3avgGRsh Yd/GRshYd
Michael Turner2012ATL3083.885.779.282.91650800
Willie Parker2009PIT2971.987.793.484.31427.8389
Larry Johnson20092TM3072.869.9111.884.81440.1562
Edgerrin James2008ARI3076.472.4100.483.11339.5514
Fred Taylor2008JAX3280.176.471.5761342.8556
Julius Jones2007DAL2667.876.4102.482.21636.8588
Warrick Dunn2007ATL3271.388.569.176.31645720
Corey Dillon2006NWE3261.110941.670.61650.8812
Anthony Thomas2004CHI2778.860.184.574.51233.7404
Corey Dillon2003CIN2981.982.289.784.61341.6541
Adrian Murrell1999ARI2969.567.978.171.81634.6553
Thurman Thomas1997BUF3168.971.872.971.21640.2643
Christian Okoye1992KAN3173.657.598.776.61529.9448
Curt Warner1989SEA2864.182.192.679.61639.4631
Walter Payton1987CHI3383.396.9105.395.21244.4533
Earl Campbell19842TM2992.959.88679.61433.4468
Delvin Williams1979MIA2878.666.592.579.21450.2703
Mike Thomas1978WAS256284.765.670.81341533
John Brockington1975GNB2763.181.773.472.71431434
Floyd Little1974DEN3269.961.480.970.71422.3312

If Rice does end 2013 with such a low rushing average, he’d be joining a long list of feature running backs who fell off a cliff…. and never recovered. I’m not ready to write off Rice just yet — he still has gained the most yards from scrimmage of any player since 2009, and the poor production from Pierce seems to be a strong mitigating factor. But when running backs fall off, the decline tends to be can be quite steep, and often out of nowhere.

  • Richie

    Another guy on the first list who might inspire hope is Marshall Faulk. He ended up having a 100+ yard game that season, plus another 8,000+ yards in his career. Although he was 3 years younger than Rice. I don’t remember what happened to Faulk that year. Was he battling injuries, or just having a rough season? The Colts went 9-7 that year, so it’s not like they were terrible.

    On the second list, a fun name is Corey Dillon, since he appears twice, with his first appearance being part of the “3 previous years” for his second appearance. He actually ended up having the best season of his career AFTER appearing on this list in 2003 made it appear his career was over.

    • sn0mm1s

      Faulk was never a great runner on the Colts. Despite what people think of Faulk now he was a borderline bust on the Colts (which is why they pretty much just cut bait with him) and wasn’t the Faulk we think of until he had (likely) 4 other HOFers on offense. That said, IIRC, he was battling some turf toe that season.

      Dillon also responded well from his decline on the Bengals. He was either #1 or #2 in rushing, had a career high in rushing TDs, and won a ring with the Pats.

      Surrounding cast means quite a bit to the performance of a RB. Few can put up great numbers in spite of their poor team.

      • Richie

        He made 3 Pro Bowls. He had 4 1,000+ yard seasons (out of 5 with the Colts). I don’t think anybody was calling him a bust.

        • sn0mm1s

          He was traded for a 2nd and 5th rounder – I wouldn’t consider that an endorsement of his great play. If teams thought he was a HOFer a 1st or resigning wouldn’t have been an issue.