In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens had a running back problem in that none of their running backs ran particularly well at all. The defending Super Bowl champs went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, and one primary reason was a gaggle of backs who couldn't get much going behind an iffy offensive line. Baltimore ranked dead last in the NFL in running back yards per carry (2.95, more than a yard per carry below the average), and bottomed out in most short-yardage and open-field situations.
Sadly, this offseason the Ravens have been bottoming out at the position in other, more troubling ways. Ray Rice has been charged with aggravated assault following an incident with his then-fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer, at an Atlantic City casino in February in which Palmer was knocked unconscious. Officers at the scene filed charges against both Rice and Palmer. In a May 23 press conference, Rice and Palmer both spoke about the incident.
"I just wanted to look at you all in the room, you who have covered me for the last seven years – six going on seven years – and for everybody here, I want you to know that I’m still the Ray Rice that you know or used to know or [have] grown to love. I’m still the same guy," Rice said. "As me and Janay wish we could take back 30 seconds of our life, we definitely sit here today and tell you that we are better parents, we are better lovers, and we are also better friends throughout the situation. And as our families sit here today, we want to just thank you for encouraging us."
Rice's wife then took her turn.
"I want to say thank you to all of those who have supported us throughout this situation," she said. "I do deeply regret the role that I played in the incident that night, but I can say that I am happy that we continue to work through it together, and we are continuing to strengthen our relationship and our marriage and do what we have to do for not only ourselves collectively, but individually, and working on being better parents for [their two-year-old daughter] Rayven and continue to be good role models for the community like we were doing before this. I love Ray, and I know that he will continue to prove himself to not only you all, but [to] the community, and I know he will gain your respect back in due time. So thank you.”
The press conference, and its general responses, were highly managed (no questions were allowed), but the team took a great deal of well-deserved flak for this missive from the Ravens' official Twitter account:
Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) May 23, 2014
Presented out of context, it appeared that the team was trying to shift blame to the individual who was knocked out in the incident. This wasn't helped by a story on the team's official website in which a recap of the press conference brought up the subject of Ray Lewis' alleged involvement in a double murder years ago, and how long it took Lewis to "change the narrative." That story also referred to Mrs. Rice's apology for her role in the incident, and made sure to say more than once that the security video which caught the incident was "grainy." Rice, who didn't apologize to his wife at the press conference, seemed to been seen as a temporary penitent in the court of public opinion, but hey, narratives are made to be broken.
Rice wasn't the only one giving the Ravens agita in recent days. Rookie back Lorenzo Taliaferro was recently arrested in Virginia for breaking a taxicab window. And another running back, Bernard Pierce, was kicked out of an Ocean City, Maryland club along with teammate Jacoby Jones for reportedly bring too intoxicated.
So, when head coach John Harbaugh addressed the media on Thursday during the team's most recent OTAs, the subject of player conduct came up quickly.
“I’m very concerned, always concerned," Harbaugh said. "We talk to those guys all the time, and I’m disappointed in some of the silliness that’s going on. You’ve got to understand that while you may be 22, 23, 25, 26, it’s not like you’re your 22- and 23-year-old buddies. You’re not in the same position that they’re in. You have to grow up faster than your pals, so you can’t go home and run around with your pals and think you’re in the same place that they’re in. It’s a privilege to have a job like this. It’s a privilege to be in the National Football League. Yes, you’ve earned it, and you’re going to have to earn staying in this league. It’s never a given. Character is very important to us. Character really matters to us. We think that everything you do on the field, or off the field, has an impact on what you do on the field, and vice versa. Discipline is not like a light switch. You can’t just walk out of this building and all of the sudden turn it off and then go out back here and turn it on."
So, what are the Ravens doing to reinforce that message? Harbaugh talked about what will happen when a player's ability to help the team is outweighed by the negative impact of their actions, and that would be the cutting point. "That’s not just for players -- that’s coaches, that’s scouts, that’s everybody that works in our league. It should be that way.”
But there were no specific repercussions in his overall math.
"If you look at everything that’s happened, 90 percent, it seems to me – and I don’t have any facts for this – but it’s going to be 90 percent alcohol and another percentage of marijuana. One of those two things is going to be involved, and that goes back to what we were just talking about. You don’t do the right thing just because you call a cab, OK? You haven’t done the right thing. I’d rather have you do that than get in a car and get behind the wheel, but how about we start off with the idea that we’re not going to go out and drink? How about if we start off with that? Because the other side of the coin is that we are supposed to be world-class athletes. That is not what I would call an effective training method right there, to go out and drink too much. So it starts with that. We expect those guys to chase a high standard, and we’re going to do everything we can to hold them accountable." It's not that the Ravens are the only team currently afflicted with such issues. The Seahawks took Baltimore's title as reigning NFL champs despite a rash of PED and substance-abuse issues, the Dolphins are still trying to get past the Richie Incognito scandal from a personnel standpoint, and John Harbaugh's brother Jim has been dancing around the Aldon Smith issue in San Francisco ever since Smith started acting out. But as with most problems that are solved on a global scale, the solutions begin at home. Most NFL teams have always been -- and still remain -- singularly ill-equipped to deal with those issues in a pre-emptive sense.