Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension is over, after an independent arbitrator determined that increasing his two game suspension was an “abuse of discretion” by Commissioner Roger Goodell. The ruling means that Rice—who was cut by the Baltimore Ravens, and subsequently cleared waivers unclaimed—is a free agent, and free to sign with any NFL team. But will any team sign RIce? Join me as we take a look.
Ray Rice is officially eligible to return to the NFL after an independent judge overturned his indefinite suspension. Rice was initially suspended for two games, but the suspension was then extended indefinitely following the release of a video of Rice hitting his then fiancée, now wife, Janay.
However, though he is eligible to return to the NFL, he is not yet able. Rice was cut by the Baltmore Ravens within hours of the video surfacing, and cleared waivers with no team picking up his contract. He is an NFL free agent, with a lot of baggage. His options are limited, and his return to the top still appears a long way off. A number of teams linked to the star have strongly denied that they have any interest in signing the former Ravens running back.
However, his return is not off the table altogether. There are a number of scenarios which could see him take the field again this season, though it would take a particular type of team, coach and circumstance to make it possible.
It has be playoff contender.
Here’s the reality, if Rice is going to sign with anyone, it’s going to have to be a playoff contender. It’s not that Rice has much leverage to insist on this, but no team is going to risk their reputation to sign a player who may not even play for them, and certainly won’t change their fate.
Rice is reportedly in good shape, and is ready to play. However, assuming he doesn’t return to Baltimore—which we think is not going to happen—he will not know the playbook, and will not have chemistry with the rest of the team. While Rice may be physically ready to take the field, which in and of itself is not guaranteed, it is unlikely that he will be running well for at least 3-4 weeks. Unless a team is still likely to be playing in January, there is little chance of them signing Rice. This automatically rules out teams like the Oakland Raiders, who have a history of signing troubled players, but are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
They have to have a real need.
In addition to being in playoff contention, the team also must have a real, deep seeded need for a star running back. While no shortage of teams who would have taken Rice in years gone by, he is coming off a down season, and has not taken the field since training camp.
That, of course, is not to mention his “baggage”. Unless a team has a real and immediate need, most will prefer to wait until the offseason, to better evaluate his current skill, and take the temperature of public opinion towards him before even considering a player like Rice.
However, if a team has a big enough need, then perhaps they may be forced to give it a go, rather than risking missing out on the playoffs, or going out early.
They must have a headstrong coaching staff, and front office.
No matter what happens—even if the gamble pays off—Rice will bring a lot of unwanted attention to any team that signs him. Unless the team have a very strong coaching staff, who absolutely knows how to deal with this pressure, and an amazing front office, who are able to work out a contract which completely insulates the team against future missteps, the deal simply isn’t going to go down.
The team also needs to have a strong pastoral system in place to ensure that the Rice’s have the support and help they need to work through their issues, as well as an experienced enough staff to ensure that they can get him up to speed in time.
They must have good community links, and have not used up their goodwill.
Perhaps most importantly, the team will need to sell this to the community. Of course, having a strong, well liked head coach and general manager will help here, but this is only going to work if the fan base trust the team, and have not already used up their goodwill.
Any team with recent issues with discipline or controversy, anything which has alienated the fan base—such as relocation rumours, disliked owners, or questions about the future of their head coach or GM—will likely rule the team out of contention for Rice.
The team will need to be able to stand up in front of their fans, and be united when they say that they absolutely condemn Rice’s prior behaviour, but believe in second chances, that he has made the changes necessary to turn his life around, and make a new start. They need the community to believe them when they say that they have done their due diligence, and believe that Rice will be a benefit, not a detriment to the team. There can be no doubt when they say that they are firmly against violence towards anyone, especially women or children, but that Rice is no longer a threat to his family.
This needs to be a united message, top to bottom, including the owners, coaches and general managers, as well as from Rice himself, and the existing locker room. Any questions, any hesitation, any uncertainty, and Rice will almost certainly do more harm than good.
Rice and his family must be ready, and willing to move to this city, and involve themselves heavily in the community.
Of course, once the owners have put their reputation on the line to bring Rice in, he and his family need to be ready to commit, 100% to that city. They need to be ready to get out in the community and prove that they are moving on from the past.
They need to involve themselves actively with team charity work, and commit fully to their new home.
Janay Rice must be ready and willing to stand next to her husband—as she already has—and be seen not as a victim, but as someone of great strength, who has overcome adversity, and made the bravest decision of all, to forgive.
This will be an absolute must, and any failure to do so will reflect very badly on the team, so teams must be completely sure that the Rice’s will be ready to do this once they arrive.
Who are the candidates?
Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals tick almost every box for Rice.
They are playoff contenders—at 9-3 they are top of the NFC on tie-breakers—but have struggled recently, losing their last two games as injuries have caught up with them.
Their running game is among the worst in the NFL, as featured back Andre Ellington has struggled all season to shake a lingering injury and return to his 2013 form. They have suffered some key injuries, and their next man up philosophy, which has served them well so far appears ready to crumble as they are forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
Their coaching staff is one of the most mature and well respected in the league, with Bruce Arians a leading candidate to repeat his 2012 Coach of the Year honours. He is a well liked coach, and media darling, and if any coach in the NFL could convince the world that Rice deserves a second chance, it would be Arians. He has the fan base, media and team practically eating out of his hand, and appears willing, and able, to convince people of just about anything.
General manager Steve Keim is also a very strong executive, and has been a master at working out low-risk, short-term “prove it” contracts for veteran players. And team president Michael Bidwell has a much better reputation in the community than his father Bill, and has been very active in the local community since taking over day-to-day operation of the team. He sits on numerous local charities and boards, and is considered one of the most admired executives in the Phoenix area, and would have the strength of character to keep Rice committed to rehabilitating his image.
They are also have a track-record working with players with off-field issues—they took a chance on Tyrann Mathieu in the third round in 2012, and he has been paying dividends ever since—and have kept at least one player, Daryl Washington, on their roster in spite of a season-long suspension, and serious domestic abuse charges, which are arguably more serious than Rice’s.
That said, they also wasted no time cutting Running Back Jonathan Dwyer after his own domestic violence case came to light, so it is unclear exactly how lenient they are willing to be.
Arizona is a conservative, religious, “red” state, and their fan base may be more open to overlooking, or at least forgiving, something like this, and less swayed by pressure from women’s rights and domestic violence advocacy groups than a number of other teams in more liberal cities.
And of course, there is the fact that Arizona hosts the NFL Championship game in February, and most fans in Arizona have brought into the hype of playing in a home Super Bowl—if Rice is able to help deliver that for them, then they will be willing to overlook a lot.
Detroit Lions. Another playoff hopeful team which has struggled to move the ball on the ground, the Lions are a team who could drastically use an upgrade at running back. at 8-4, in a tough NFC North, the Lions are not even guaranteed a wildcard spot yet, let alone a division title.
Jim Caldwell has a history with Rice—he was the Ravens offensive coordinator during Rice’s most successful seasons in Baltimore—and has previously stuck up for Rice calling him a “good person” and praising him as a role model, mentioning his work as an anti-bullying advocate in the past.
That said, Caldwell has been vocal on the team’s zero-tolerance policy on domestic violence, and reportedly used Rice as a cautionary tale among his players, so you have to question whether signing Rice would undo a lot of that rhetoric.
However, faced with missing out on the playoffs could be motivation enough for Caldwell to give Rice a chance. Expectations were high for Caldwell when he got the job in Detroit. And while the Lions have been there, or there about all season, there is a real sense that this may not be good enough for a team with the offensive, and defensive talent the Lions possess.
As someone who knew Rice during his time in Baltimore, Caldwell would have the authority to speak about the kind of man he knows Rice to be without it sounding like a script. He would be able to use Rice’s return as a “teaching moment”, and would have a real strong basis, given their existing relationship, to support Rice through his rehabilitation, and ensure that his family have the support they need as they continue to pick up the pieces, and rebuild their family.
The Lions fans are likely to be very understanding of anything their team do—general manager Martin Mayhew has done a lot to earn back the trust of the fan base after a tough start to his tenure—and their recent success has earned them the right to take some chances.
Much like with the Cardinals, their running game has been one of their few obvious weaknesses, and without a running game, teams have been able to zero in on their star receivers. Their four losses thus far can all be pinned heavily on rushing struggles as much as anything else.
The team are in the hunt for a division crown, but are also acutely aware that they are still only a loss away from falling out of the wildcard spot altogether.
In truth, the Lions may be less in need of Rice than a team like the Cardinals currently are, and a comfortable win over the Chicago Bears has eased the pressure on them just enough that their hand has not yet been forced. But don’t rule out their making a move to improve this area of their game.