On Friday, an arbitrator overturned the indefinite suspension of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who violently assaulted his then-fiancee (now wife) in an elevator in February. The arbitrator found that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was not misled by Rice when Goodell initially suspended Rice for two games, and that Goodell’s decision to extend Rice’s ban — following enormous public outcry after the release of a more graphic video of the incident — was “arbitrary.”
The ruling means Rice is free to sign with any NFL team, and reports Sunday were that at least four teams were interested. Ethically, there’s no escaping Rice’s scandal and the probable uproar his signing would bring to whichever team takes a chance on him. But there’s also the question of whether Rice is even worth having on the field.
From 2009 to 2012, Rice was arguably the best running back in football. But in 2013, he was horrific, ranking last in yards per rush among RBs with at least 200 carries. In fact, restricting the comparison to his contemporaries actually understates how bad Rice was a year ago; among all historical NFL running back seasons of 200 or more carries, only five saw a lower yards-per-carry average than Rice’s 3.08 mark in 2013.
Yards per carry isn’t everything, of course. It can be highly volatile from year to year (or even within the same season), overly responsive to a handful of anomalous long runs and not representative of the fact that, when they run the ball, coaches are trying to maximize “success rate” — the rate at which a play increases the team’s expected points — not yards per play.
But Rice also had the league’s worst success rate among running backs with 200 or more carries in 2013. And spearheaded by Rice, the Ravens’ rushing offense was the least efficient in football. Furthermore, Pro Football Focus’s play-by-play grading metrics, which measure how well a player fulfilled his responsibilities on a given play, rated Rice as the worst halfback in the NFL a season ago — not only because he was the worst rusher (by far), but also because he was the league’s fifth-worst blocker at the position. (It doesn’t help Rice that his replacement on the Ravens, Justin Forsett, is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and already has 349 more rushing yards this season than Rice had in 2013 — on 35 fewer carries.)
So, by any standard, Rice was awful when he last played. And at age 27, he’s at the point on the running back aging curve where production starts to fall off a cliff. FiveThirtyEight contributor Chase Stuart looked at a cohort of recent RBs who had good careers (at least 5,000 career rushing yards and 40 rushing yards per game) and found that nearly a third of them were washed up by the end of their age 28 season. Almost two-thirds were finished by age 29.
Even after his reinstatement (and the requisite quotes about Rice having stayed in “great shape” during the ban), Rice is unlikely to contribute to a team in any meaningful way this season. So whoever signs him is looking at maybe two more seasons of any productivity from him — and that’s without factoring in a year of rust and just how bad Rice was when he last took the field. Combined with the seemingly inevitable backlash his signing will cause, it’s tough to find any logical reason to give Rice another chance in the NFL.