Thursday May 28th, 2015

It has been a day shy of 17 months since Ray Rice last played in an NFL game, and almost nine months since his football career unraveled amid the firestorm sparked by the release of the video that captured him brutally assaulting his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City hotel elevator.

Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens in early September, suspended indefinitely by the league almost immediately, and eventually re-instated to the NFL in late November when he won his appeal of the suspension. But that ruling has not yet translated into a return to the field, and as the league’s off-season drags on there are seemingly no signs that portend Rice being signed by a team and launching a comeback at the age of 28 in 2015.

Even while the ugly issue of domestic violence has returned to recent NFL headlines with the arrest of defensive tackle Ray McDonald (and his subsequent release by the Bears), and Seattle’s controversial drafting of second-round Michigan defensive end Frank Clark, Rice waits for a phone call that may never come.

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With NFL training camps opening in about two months, what will be Rice’s ultimate fate? Will he receive that coveted second chance, or does he remain too radioactive for any team to touch in the league’s new zero-tolerance climate when it comes to domestic violence? And if some club does take a chance on him and invites him to camp, will Rice even be able to re-start his career after such a long hiatus from the game, with his 2013 production having slipped dramatically from his previously lofty levels to begin with?

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In an attempt to potentially answer those questions, I reached out to an array of sources within and around the NFL this week, including high-level club executives, coaches, personnel men, scouts and two long-time agents. My question was two-fold: Did they anticipate any team signing Rice either before training camp or during the preseason, and if so, which team or teams seemed to be the most likely candidates to pursue Rice at some point?

Twelve league sources contacted me either by phone or text with their thoughts and opinions on Rice and the unknowns of his football future. In exchange for their candor, no names or team affiliations will be used to identify the sources, who were roughly split among those who believe Rice’s NFL career is, in all likelihood, finished, and those who think he will still get another shot in the league at some point this season.

“I think I’m in the minority on this, but I think he plays this year,” a high-level club executive said. “But it’ll have to be for a really strong front office organization. Seattle, Green Bay, Dallas, situations like that. I’m a little bit surprised that it has taken this long for someone to sign him. Buffalo could be another team to watch with Rice. They don’t have a need at running back right now, but I’m told Rex Ryan thinks the world of him from their time together in Baltimore [in 2008]. He loves him. He doesn’t like him. He loves him. 

“I’m rooting for Rice. I think he deserves to play. From all accounts, he’s a great person who made a pretty egregious mistake. The reaction to what he did was exacerbated by the fact it was on video. But let’s face it, we’re a league in which [former Rams defensive lineman] Leonard Little killed somebody [while driving drunk in 1998], and [then-Browns receiver] Donte’ Stallworth killed somebody [while driving drunk in 2009]. And they kept playing.”

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But another club front-office member said the recent league developments involving McDonald’s domestic violence arrest, and Clark’s criticized selection by Seattle have only made Rice’s path back to the league that much more difficult.

“Every time a guy gets in trouble for domestic violence, it gets harder for Ray Rice to get back in,” the club front-office member said. “Ray McDonald did Ray Rice absolutely no favors, because every time domestic violence is in the headlines, that brings Rice back onto the radar for the wrong reason. I would have thought that a team that didn’t care so much about the media or fan pressure, like a Dallas or an Oakland—and I would have said Seattle as well before the Frank Clark pick—would have already signed him.

“But I think it’s getting very difficult for anyone to go there now. Because the first thing you’re going to do if you’re thinking about signing him is to go to your top three sponsors who pay you a $1 million a year and say, ‘What would you think if we sign Ray Rice?’ And if one of them says, ‘Hell, no. You do that and we’re out,’ then you’re probably not going to do it. Now, if he had rushed for 1,200 yards with a 4.5 yard average the last time he played, that might be different. If he was the Ray Rice of 2008-12. But the last time we saw him he ran for 660 yards and a 3.1 average carry.”

One long-time personnel executive in the league said via text: “In light of the Ray McDonald story, Rice’s chances are deteriorating in my opinion. There’s lots of volume at his position and his skill set doesn’t warrant the scrutiny it will bring to a team. His biggest fans are the Ravens, but politically they can’t bring him back.”

But interestingly, one club executive still believes long-time Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome is the best ally Rice has in his corner, and foresees Newsome having a role in helping convince a team to take a chance on Rice this year.

“He will get a chance because of Ozzie and how well respected he is,” the club executive said via text. “He’s a powerful guy in this league. I think someone will sign Rice. Jacksonville considered it.”

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Damian Strohmeyer/SI

While many teams have probably considered signing Rice, who turned 28 in January, part of the calculus is how many clubs can be easily eliminated as suitors due to issues that have made them wary of taking such a risk, or incurring the potential backlash that might come with signing Rice.

Could Dallas add Rice after already signing former Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, with his well-documented domestic violence issues, this off-season? Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can take the heat and can’t be fired as the club’s GM, but where’s that tipping point, even in Dallas? It’s hard to imagine Seattle pursuing Rice after being questioned heavily for the drafting of Clark, with some apparent gaps in their due diligence regarding his involvement in an assault incident with his girlfriend last November. Ditto for Carolina after the Panthers banished Hardy.

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San Francisco seems out of the picture, given how the 49ers were criticized for having been late to act last year regarding McDonald’s history of incidents. Rest assured the Bears won’t be in the market for Rice’s services given the pounding they have taken for their signing of McDonald. And another source told me definitively that Miami will not be Rice’s landing spot, in part because Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wouldn’t choose to risk a public backlash over a reserve running back, especially in light of the team’s highly publicized locker room bullying scandal in 2013.

“I feel he should get a chance, but people have that vision of him hitting his now-wife in the head, and that will not go away,” a veteran NFL assistant coach told me, via text. “Whoever takes him will face scrutiny, and I don’t know if anybody wants that headache. For me, I would have a tough time with it. If that was my daughter he hit, he wouldn’t be playing football again.”

Another front-office executive with 20 years of NFL experience said Rice’s career appears over from his vantage point. “It’s a tough one, especially after Ray McDonald, but I think he’s probably done. He was declining and he plays a replaceable position. I think he would have been signed by now if it was going to happen.”

A veteran scout I communicated with said that even with the Greg Hardy signing in Dallas, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Cowboys being the team that opens its doors to Rice. Dallas is in win-now mode, and if the right set of circumstances unfolded in a backfield that has lost DeMarco Murray this off-season, the Cowboys could pounce at some point.

“Nobody has a crystal ball, but if someone in the Dallas backfield sustains a significant injury in the middle of the season, with the Cowboys thinking they’re making a long playoff run, I believe that organization would strongly consider it,” the scout said in a text. “When and if Rice gets signed this season, the circumstances of his signing will likely be due to an injury a team has sustained to their starting running back. The Cardinals, Seahawks, Raiders, Patriots and Cowboys would be the most likely teams who would pull the trigger. Especially the Seahawks, Patriots and Cowboys, because these organizations are resistant to react to public pressure and frankly have a history of making unpopular decisions like this one would be. They’ll do what they think is in the best interest of the organization.”

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But the McDonald saga might change the dynamic of Rice’s potential market, the scout added, reminding an interested club of the public relations damage that could be at stake if Rice is signed.

“Ray McDonald’s current predicament hurts Ray Rice,” the scout said. “For him to now get arrested a third time in less than a calendar year, that really gives the NFL a black eye. Not only because of the perception that the league office made a mistake [by letting him continue to play last year], but more so because this hot button topic is again a conversation piece for the national media and making front-page headlines again.”

A veteran agent predicted via text that Rice will play in the NFL again at some point this year, and thinks he sees a match in Kansas City, with Rice playing for the head coach who gave Michael Vick his career’s second chance after the former Falcons quarterback went to prison and missed the 2007-08 seasons in punishment for his dog-fighting conviction.

“Someone will sign Rice, and I think Kansas City with Andy Reid is good for reclamation projects,” the agent said. “Rice deserves a second chance. He’s still a young kid. And when NFL owners get in trouble, they don’t get kicked out of the league.”

That optimism of Rice’s eventual return to the league is shared by a team’s general manager I texted with. “I do believe he’ll get another shot,” he wrote. “I would think it would have to be a team with a strong owner and front office. Not sure who, where or when, but I think he should get a shot.”

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Damian Strohmeyer/SI

But as the weeks and months continue to pass with no discernible interest in Rice, the odds of his comeback grow longer. Another veteran agent who I spoke with initially thought the passage of time was on Rice’s side, but now he’s not so sure.

“The longer we get away from the video, the more I thought time would heal all wounds,” the agent said. “I was hoping that a team would pull the trigger on Ray by now, and maybe by the end of the summer or early in camp someone signs him. But the Ray McDonald story and the reaction to it has been so strong, I can’t imagine any team saying they want to make a move for Ray right now.

“There’s Dallas, maybe Miami, and you can never count out New England, right? They've taken guys who have had issues and they don’t really care. But he’s sat out a long time. It’s hard at that position particularly, to sit out that long. I don’t know if anybody’s going to give him a chance. He’s getting up there in age a little bit, too, starting to push 30. There’s a lot more strikes against him than there are pluses right now.”

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If there was anything resembling a consensus among the dozen league sources I communicated with, it was that Dallas remains the most likely candidate to give Rice an opportunity at some point.

“You can’t help but watch what Dallas has done this off-season and wonder is that who they’ve got in their back pocket?” the second veteran agent said. “With the big-time offensive line they’ve got, and Darren McFadden being a little bit injury-prone, and Joseph Randle having had some [off-field] issues. This is a team that wants and expects to be a Super Bowl-caliber team this year, so that’s the team that’s always jumped to my mind.

“Their thinking may be that you don’t necessarily have to have Ray Rice in for the whole off-season. Maybe you sign him a little bit before camp, let the story die down by the time you get to camp, and go with the idea that Jerry Jones can weather any storm.”

But the odds remained stacked against Rice, because he is fighting negatives on so many different fronts, a high-level club front-office executive said.

“It’s possible, but unlikely [he gets signed],” the club executive said. “I don’t think the guy is toxic, it’s just unlikely that with his age, position and incident it all comes together. I don’t buy the idea that signing Ray Rice is turning your back on domestic violence. I just think it would take a strong team to explain and defend your stance. I think it’s unfair to paint Ray Rice with the same brush as a repeat offender like Ray McDonald. However, in a zero tolerance environment for domestic violence, it’s a hard thing for a team to take on, from a perception standpoint, even if you like the guy.”

With the 2015 regular season being a little more than three months away, will any team step up and be willing to publicly put its name on Rice and his damaged reputation? Or will his act of violence in that elevator in mid-February 2014 wind up costing him his NFL career, as so many have presumed all along?

“Lots of people get second chances in this league, and history dictates that he’s deserving of a second chance,” the club executive said. “However, his incident may be so heinous that you don’t get second chances after that, and that’s okay too. In football, it usually comes down to whether he can still play or not. It always comes back to that. But now it’s a new era with domestic violence. And this might be the one area where people never get second chances. We may never fully understand whether this is a talent issue or a domestic violence issue, but making a judgment on a player with both in mind is completely justifiable.”

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