OWNINGS MILLS, Maryland -- The question is asked all around these parts, especially now that Ray Rice's discipline for his domestic violence incident has been handed out, as controversial as it may be. Coming off a brutal 2013 season, in which he was stifled in a brutal Ravens offense, and now coming off an offseason in which he made national news for all of the wrong reasons, there's an assumption that Rice's days as the bell cow in this offense are over, and that his role might be minimized when he returns from a two-game suspension.
I'd suggest just the opposite.
The sense I have gotten from Ravens people throughout his long ordeal, is that they believe Rice will emerge better from his horrible mistake, on field and off. He's in excellent shape. He seems like a very good fit in new coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone scheme and he was plenty effective in a cameo in the preseason opener last week. He looks good in these joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers that entered their second day at the Ravens' practice facility Sunday, and I have a hard time believing that in two regular-season games, Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett and promising rookie Lorenzo Tallaferro are going to relegate Rice to a spare part.
I'm not the only one who believes Rice could be a bell cow again.
"Yeah, I definitely do," Ravens star linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He showed up in phenomenal shape. We like what we see." Suggs said that Rice has looked so good that the defense has pretty much decided to go totally hands-off on him, wanting him as fresh and healthy as possible for the season. "Definitely, he can still put this team on his back."
Say what you might about the degree to which the Ravens have protected and/or defended Rice during his legal issues, but there is no argument to be made that they have given every impression that they have his back. And they did so at the expense of some public ridicule. If Rice was looked at as broken down, or damaged goods, they have an interesting way of showing. If anything, the Ravens feel like Rice is going to be more motivated than ever to reclaim his career and identity as an elite back in this league, and with their offensive line rebuilt and potentially greatly improved from a year ago, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he responded with a bounce-back campaign.
Nothing I have seen or heard to this point has me thinking anything to the contrary. Remember, they gave Rice a hefty $15M signing bonus just a few years ago, and they aren't paying him $4M this season in hopes of benching him. They aren't giving him a good number of first team reps at practice with the idea that he'll be a passenger on this offense. That's not how it works.
(As for other backs, Pierce was getting blown up in individual pass protection drills against the 49ers linebackers, beaten badly three straight times and left doubled over, while Harbaugh happened to be standing literally right next to him watching. Taliaferro is intriguing as a big, bulldozer back and I wonder if he gets some looks in short yardage and goal-line right from the get go.)
Rice is in better shape than a year ago, he looks better shifting laterally, and seems to have more burst. I'm not saying that he's going to be exactly the guy he was, say, in his first three years in the league. But I expect he will be granted every opportunity to succeed in the regular season, when he returns from suspension, and I anticipate him getting the bulk of the carries and having a productive season as long as he's healthy. In Baltimore, it's become a bit of a cottage industry to write him off. I think the opposite.
• This second straight long, physical practice had some victims. The Ravens had very high hopes for young defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, who was lighting up camp after missing last season recovering from an ACL injury, but he was carted off with what John Harbaugh called an Achilles, which would end his season. "The kid was having a phenomenal camp," Suggs said. "I feel terrible for him." Baltimore already lost another promising young lineman, Brent Urban, early in camp. Ravens corner Asa Jackson walked off with an ankle injury, but Harbaugh said it is minor. The 49ers are hoping right guard Adam Snyder, a vital veteran back-up with top right guard Alex Boone holding out, did not suffer a serious knee injury and he continues to be evaluated. Losing him for an extended period of time could be key, which would only seem to boost Boone's stance.
• The 49ers are pretty banged up at receiver and on the defensive line, but are hopeful that reinforcements are on the way. Harbaugh said top wideout Michael Crabtree and veteran Brandon Lloyd, who might be facing some tough odds to try to resurrect his career, both should be back "soon." Lloyd did some individual work on Sunday. San Francisco lost starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, likely for the season. The 49ers are counting on their front-seven being bolstered by the development of two recent draft picks in particular -- Tank Carradine and Corey Lemonier -- and the early returns have been favorable.
• Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee continues to flash some special ability and the coaches are continuing to try to cull elite production from him on a regular basis. Harbaugh liked a lot of what he has seen from him in the preseason opener, but also continued to push the youngster, and is demanding more. "To me, Pernell McPhee could be a premier outside backer in the National Football League," the coach said.
• I don't see Jim Harbaugh coaching out a lame-duck year with the 49ers, and the lack of any progress on a new deal, and it being tabled for another year, points to a stalemate. The 49ers have assembled a deep roster, and maybe in the end feel as if having a $5M coach should more the suffice for winning short and long term, while I can see every reason why Harbaugh could make a potent argument as to why he should be among those in the $8M range. The fact they got nowhere this offseason, to me, points to a potential divorce in 2015. There will be a market for Harbaugh, and there are no shortage of executives in this league who believe Miami and Oakland would pursue him vigorously via trade if he's still unsigned come next year. He's already been in the Raiders organization, he loves living in the Bay Area, Mark Davis' dad was involved in a trade for a coach in the past, and Davis badly needs something to sell his fan base. The more assets the better as he tries to find a decent stadium for his team, whether in the Bay Area or Texas or wherever, and it's clear Harbaugh loves living in that area. And we already know Stephen Ross was rebuffed once, offering big money to Harbaugh before he chose San Francisco, and coach Joe Philbin's tenure there in South Florida has included no shortage of controversy. As this season winds down, and if there are no developments on the Harbaugh contract front, this will be one of the major offseason storylines in the NFL. More people I talk than not are surprised it's taken this long already to complete an extension.
• The 49ers are just as in the dark as anyone else as to when Aldon Smith's suspension will be handed down. Some are guessing it might be this Friday afternoon -- simply because that's when a lot of NFL discipline tends to be announced -- but have been given no indications of the date or severity of what it coming following Smith's numerous run-ins with the law. Anything from two games through half a season wouldn't come as a shock, and predicting these types of sentences can be difficult at best (i.e. the two games for Rice). They certainly anticipate him being out for at least a few games, but beyond that, who knows?
• If the Texans opt to trade or cut Case Keenum, and keep just two quarterbacks on their roster, I can't imagine the Ravens wouldn't inquire. It's been up and down for Ravens back-up Tyrod Taylor, while Keenum already knows this system inside out from his time with Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston. The Texans got a linebacker from Atlanta for backup TJ Yates; Keenum would be valued higher than that.
• Longtime 49ers scout Joel Patten is no longer with the team. He is not among their traveling party here for these practices and opted to leave the organization, sources said. Patten was given the title of Director of College Scouting a few years back, and was named director of player personnel in 2013 after Tom Gamble left San Francisco to take a similar position with the Eagles. Patten entered the league as a scout with the Redskins in 1996.
• The amount of illegal contact flags being thrown around was staggering at times. You could hear officials yelling "ICT" repeatedly during some drills and coaches from both teams questioning exactly where the infraction took place. If they truly call it this tight in the regular season there will be some outrage. Throughout one 11-on-11 drill you could hear shouts of "What the hell was that call, zebra?" and "Ya'll be throwing a lot of (bleeping) flags!" from either sideline. Seems like everyone is still trying to figure out exactly where this initiative is going. As for the officials, John Harbaugh said, "I think they're trying to figure it out, too, exactly what they're going to call."
• Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith might be older receivers, but they look anything but done out here. Both have made their share of acrobatic catches and have been a handful to cover at times during the first two days of this joint session. There is still the occasional miscommunication between Smith and his new quarterback, as expected, but he still looks explosive.
• If Josh Johnson doesn't beat out Blaine Gabbert for the backup quarterback job in San Francisco, I'll be surprised.