OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- New long-term contract and accompanying career security in hand, Ray Rice is not satisfied. He wants more. He wants it now. He wants it all.
"Getting there is not good enough any more,'' said the Baltimore Ravens stud running back, laying flat on his back at his locker between recent training camp practices. "I've played in two AFC Championship Games since I've been here, and been in the playoffs every year. The playoffs are the norm now. It's not just about the feeling of making the playoffs any more. It's about taking care of business again and this time actually getting the job done. Do we have the pieces? Yes, but it's going to take every man on board.''
In Baltimore, it's an easy argument to make that any Super Bowl push the Ravens might make starts with Rice being on board. He may not even be the most decorated Ray on his team's roster, but he is the most valuable. Baltimore's MVR, if you will. The Ravens are not only the lone NFL team to make the playoffs in each of the past four seasons -- or since Rice arrived in 2008's second round -- but also they've won at least one game in the Super Bowl tournament four years in a row, the first team to manage that since New England notched at least one playoff win five years running, beginning in 2003.
But getting close is getting annoying in Baltimore. The Ravens' agonizing 23-20, last-minute loss at the Patriots in last January's AFC title game represents the closest Rice and Co. have come to the Super Bowl, and it must have felt a little like orbiting the moon without being able to land on it.
"We've been close all four years I've been here,'' Rice said. "Last year at this time, we were talking about getting over that hump against Pittsburgh, and we did that. Now it's a case of getting back to the AFC Championship first, and being able to put ourselves back in that situation. At the end of the day, it's going to be about the players and our mentality.''
Rice's mentality this summer seems as rock-solid as his tightly-packed, 5-foot-8, 212-pound frame. The day I talked to him at camp, he was only two weeks or so removed from signing that new five-year, $40 million contract with the Ravens, the one that will pay him $17 million this season and $8 million in 2013, far better than the $7.7 million he was slated to earn in 2012 as the team's designated franchise player.
Rice and Baltimore took their negotiation down to the wire on deadline day for the franchise tag, but in the end, the Ravens more than rewarded the runner who led the league in yards from scrimmage last season (2,068), with his career-best 1,364 yards rushing, franchise-record 15 touchdowns and team-high 76 catches for 704 yards nicely stating his case.
"It definitely feels like a load off your shoulders, because you want to be taken care of, but you also don't want to be missing much time when it comes to playing football,'' said Rice, who stayed away from the team's voluntary offseason workouts and may have staged a camp holdout without a long-term deal. "The best thing about me being here on time is I'm getting my timing back with my offensive line. I believe I was given a fair deal. I got taken care of in the first two years, and then I just have to play the rest of my deal out.''
With almost two-thirds of the contract's value front-loaded into its first two seasons, Rice will indeed get compensated for the great bargain he has been in his first four seasons in Baltimore, with two Pro Bowl trips to his credit in that span and three consecutive years of at least 1,775 yards from scrimmage. Rice is thankful he didn't have to make the decision on a holdout, but he admits the franchise-player label was starting to wear on him this offseason.
"The franchise tag was making me uneasy,'' he said. "I knew it would buy time to negotiate a contract, but I didn't necessarily feel like it should have gone on that long. I know it's part of the growing pains of the business, and it's not personal. So I never let it get personal. The only way it would have gotten personal is if I had to play under the tag this season, and been guaranteed only one year.''
Pushing the rock back up the hill has begun in Baltimore, but Rice has learned this much about the hard work it takes to position a team for a deep playoff run: the fewer games, and road games, you play in the postseason, the better. After Baltimore had to take to the road for all seven of its playoff games in 2008-2010 (going 4-3), the Ravens finally got past the Steelers to earn the AFC North crown, a first-round bye, and a divisional round home game last season. They put it to good use by beating visiting Houston 20-13 to advance to the AFC title game in Foxboro. Taking that next step to a No. 1 seed and two playoff games at home seems the logical challenge in 2012 in Baltimore.
"It helps, having that one playoff game here really helped,'' Rice said. "Having that first-round bye helps, too. We're a great road team, and we've won in the playoffs on the road, but we've got to be able to put ourselves back in that situation, playing at home in the playoffs. That's the goal, and now we have to go back to work and reinvent ourselves again.''
The way the Ravens' season died last year was the cruelest near-miss of all in the John Harbaugh coaching era. That Lee Evans drop/strip job in the end zone. The 32-yard Billy Cundiff shank job on the game-tying, overtime-producing field goal attempt. The TV cameras captured the look of utter disbelief on Rice's face in the seconds after Baltimore's season went awry, and it's the kind of memory that could haunt a guy if he lets it.
"I'll be honest with you, I think we're over it,'' Rice said. "In the sense that we're back to playing football. Enough time has gone by. But it won't actually be over until we see another opponent [in the regular season]. It's still the last game we played, and we still remember it.''
Naturally there's a lot of talk in Baltimore about how long this particular window of Super Bowl opportunity will stay open for the Ravens. The ageless Ray Lewis is in fact 37. Ed Reed turns 34 next month. Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk and five other Ravens have at least 10 years of NFL experience as of this season. Rice is somehow only 25 and in his fifth pro season, but there is a sense of urgency in Baltimore, and the likely season-ending loss of reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs to an offseason Achilles' tear makes this year's task all the more difficult.
"You can't replace a Sizzle [Suggs' nickname],'' Rice said. "We need multiple guys to step up to fill that void. But things happen, situations happen you can't control in football, and that's one of them. We know what he brings to the team, and no more motivation is needed. But without Ray Lewis here, I think our team would be in disarray. He has that ability to bring guys together for one goal.
"That window might be closing, but the core of our team is here. Ray definitely drives it. Ed [Reed] drives it. Suggs has been around. And then there are young guys like me, Michael Oher and Joe Flacco, and we're just piggybacking off these guys, riding on something that's already been built here since '96, when Ray first came to Baltimore.''
Many would beg to differ on the question of which Ray the Ravens are really riding at this point. Rice's value in Baltimore is undeniable, as his new contract conveys. If the Ravens do indeed climb another step and reach the Super Bowl this season, I put my money on it being the ultra-productive Rice leading the way.