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24 Jul 2014

Sidney Rice: What Could Have Been?

by Scott Kacsmar

The name Rice will always be synonymous with great wide receiver, but what if we're not talking about Jerry? Sidney Rice announced his retirement at the age of 27 on Wednesday. After a seven-year career plagued by injuries, the one-time Pro Bowl wide receiver released a statement on the Seahawks' official site about his decision.

"I was just thinking about things I’ve been through in the last few years," Rice said. "I’ve hit the ground a number of times. I have quite a few injuries. It’s something I’ve always battled through and came back from.

"But I just figure at this point I have the rest of my life ahead of me and I want to be able to function and do things later down the road.”

So how do we judge a career that feels so incomplete? Rice did not have a great career shortened by one serious injury like Sterling Sharpe. He also was not a one-year wonder like Albert Connell, though many people who will remember Rice are going to have a hard time recalling more than his great 2009 season. Some will just give Brett Favre the credit for that year. Did you see the numbers Robert Brooks had as Sharpe's replacement in 1995 with Favre throwing him the ball? Much like Rice, injuries took a toll on Brooks and we never truly got to see him try replicating his breakout success.

But Rice appeared destined for recognition as one of the best young receivers in the league. Including the playoffs, Rice had seven touchdown catches in his last four games of the 2009 season. That takes more than just great quarterback play. Rice tied the NFL single-game postseason record with three touchdown catches against Dallas. Everything was clicking for Rice, but that was the summit of his career.

Trying to make up for the Troy Williamson disaster, the Vikings drafted Rice in the second round in 2007. Knee injuries caused him to miss a total of six games in his first two seasons. Long after his hip injury in the 2009 NFC Championship, Rice finally had surgery and did not return until November, playing six games in 2010 before suffering a concussion. He left for Seattle, where he signed a five-year deal for $41 million. In 2011, more concussions and a shoulder problem put Rice on injured reserve, missing seven games total. He rebounded with a full season in 2012, but lasted eight games last year before tearing his ACL. He did not get to play in Seattle's Super Bowl run, but he has a ring and mentored the team's young receivers. The Seahawks released, but re-signed Rice this offseason, though concussions seem to be the specific reason for his early retirement.

Rice is an example of why we need advanced metrics to judge players more accurately. He only played two full seasons, but Rice led all receivers in DYAR in 2009 and finished third in DVOA. He finished seventh in DVOA with Seattle's lower-volume passing game in 2012. Our data only currently goes back to 1989, but wide receivers who lead the league in DYAR are usually among the game's best:

  • Jerry Rice (1989-90, 1994, 1996)
  • Michael Irvin (1991-93, 1995)
  • Randy Moss (2000, 2003, 2007)
  • Marvin Harrison (2001-02, 2006)
  • Calvin Johnson (2011-12)
  • Demaryius Thomas (2013)
  • Mike Wallace (2010)
  • Sidney Rice (2009)
  • Andre Johnson (2008)
  • Steve Smith (2005)
  • Reggie Wayne (2004)
  • Jimmy Smith (1999)
  • Eric Moulds (1998)
  • Antonio Freeman (1997)

Mike Wallace has been on a downward spiral ever since his 2010 season, but Sidney Rice is without question the least accomplished DYAR leader here. Even after we keep adding older seasons, Rice will likely hold that title for a long time. His 1,312 receiving yards in 2009 are 564 more than his next best season, and those are the only two years he had even 500 receiving yards.

A lot of good receivers have taken three years to shine, so we can gloss over his first two years of mild production with inadequate quarterback play. Rice was simply spectacular with Favre in 2009. He caught 68.6 percent of his targets that season, as opposed to 52.8 percent in 2010-13. But how much of the success was Favre's incredible year?

A season like the one Rice had in 2009 is dying to be studied for catch radius -- something we have looked at recently at Football Outsiders. Rice made some great catches, but how many were routine catches with the ball right on the numbers? I looked at every catch I could for his 2009-13 regular seasons, but please note NFL Game Rewind is missing games from 2009 (nine catches total are absent from the data).

Sidney Rice: Catch Radius (2009-13)
Type of Catch 2009 Pct. 2010 Pct. 2011 Pct. 2012 Pct. 2013 Pct. TOT Pct.
Total 74 - 17 - 32 - 50 - 15 - 188 -
Chest-Level 37 50.0% 13 76.5% 13 40.6% 20 40.0% 7 46.7% 90 47.9%
Chest-Low 4 5.4% 0 0.0% 3 9.4% 4 8.0% 0 0.0% 11 5.9%
Chest-High 2 2.7% 0 0.0% 1 3.1% 4 8.0% 4 26.7% 11 5.9%
Chest-All 43 58.1% 13 76.5% 17 53.1% 28 56.0% 11 73.3% 112 59.6%
Above the head 7 9.5% 0 0.0% 1 3.1% 5 10.0% 2 13.3% 15 8.0%
Below the waist 1 1.4% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 1 0.5%
Diving to ground 3 4.1% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 2 4.0% 1 6.7% 6 3.2%
Eye-level 9 12.2% 0 0.0% 2 6.3% 5 10.0% 0 0.0% 16 8.5%
Over the shoulder 3 4.1% 1 5.9% 3 9.4% 2 4.0% 0 0.0% 9 4.8%
Pass thrown wide 8 10.8% 3 17.6% 9 28.1% 8 16.0% 1 6.7% 29 15.4%

We can probably brush over 2010 and 2013 since they have 32 catches combined, but in his other seasons Rice had a pretty consistent rate of chest-level catches. His 59.6 chest rate is right in line with the overall average I have studied to this point (59.8 percent). All of Rice's numbers are right at the average except for catches made on passes thrown wide. Rice is 15.4 percent compared to an average of 7.4 percent. That's definitely not just the result of Favre leading him on slants either. Rice showed good body control near the sideline to pull in difficult passes. Rice was also low on eye-level catches (8.5 percent compared to an average of 15.9 percent). He was listed at 6-foot-4, so the ball shouldn't have been coming in too high for him.

As the 2009 season progressed, I could see Favre was more willing to give Rice chances down the field, and he of course responded with several great catches. The two developed a strong chemistry, and it would have been very telling of Rice's long-term success if he was there in Week 1 for the 2010 season in spite of Favre's poor performance that year. In 2010, Favre connected on just five of his 15 passes to Rice. Joe Webb, an imitation quarterback, only hit Rice on two-of-11 targets together.

An oddity of Rice's career was how much continuity followed him from Minnesota to Seattle. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson both joined Rice in Seattle in 2011. Last year, Percy Harvin became Rice's teammate again as well, but Jackson is the key here. Believe it or not, but compared to Russell Wilson, Jackson actually had a higher completion percentage (57.4 percent vs. 55.8 percent) and yards per attempt (9.3 vs. 8.3) when throwing to Rice.

Great catches were certainly part of that. Rice had what I believe to be his greatest career catch in 2010 against Buffalo -- the game where Arthur Moats injured Favre, leading to the end of his consecutive starts streak. Jackson stepped in and lofted a pass for Rice down the right sideline. Despite two defenders closing in, Rice used one hand to fight for control of the ball and landed in the end zone for what became a touchdown upon review (see top two images below). That's usually an interception without the great effort from the receiver. Rice was never on the Calvin Johnson/Randy Moss level, but at his best he was on the next tier when it came to bringing down jump balls and beating tight coverage.

Rice had a flair for the dramatic catch, but also made big plays in huge spots, which helped boost his advanced metrics. For Seattle in 2012, Rice caught a 46-yard bomb to beat the Patriots, then later that year in overtime in Chicago, he fearlessly knifed his way into the end zone, taking a huge hit in the process to win the game. Those were stepping-stone wins for the Seahawks on their way to the top, and Rice's contributions should not be ignored that season.

Rice leaves the game with 243 receptions for 3,592 yards and 30 touchdowns. That means 12.3 percent of Rice's receptions resulted in a touchdown. How good is that? Ranked a few spots ahead of him is Jerry Rice at 12.7 percent. Rice will always look better on advanced numbers rather than his totals, but he also passes the eye test.

When looking over the facts of Rice's career, the most logical conclusion would be that he was on the path to stardom, but injuries sapped what could have been. Throw in a change of teams, lesser quarterback play and a low-volume passing attack in Seattle the last two years, and we have a finished product that feels so unfinished.

I recently watched the 2005 film Cinderella Man for the first time. Russell Crowe portrays James J. Braddock, a real-life boxer during the Great Depression. Braddock's once-promising career fell on hard times after chronic injuries to his right hand. He took a break, but soon returned to boxing to better support his family. Braddock ended up staging one of the all-time upsets in boxing history when he won the heavyweight championship. There's a scene -- this is going to be bad paraphrasing, but I know it's in the movie -- where Crowe explains his comeback to reporters in the simplest terms. He's been fighting injured and had a lot of bad luck. Now that he's healthy, we again see the talent that was always there.

That struck a chord with me in thinking about athletes of any sport. Without your health, it's physically impossible to be the same player. We rarely see an athlete take an extended break to fully heal, because they are always trying to come back as soon as possible.

Rice's talent was obvious when watching him. We saw it in abundance in 2009, and even last year he made some tough catches on a limited sample of plays. The penultimate catch of his career was diving for a low ball and barely getting his hands underneath it for a conversion on third-and-long.

Rice won't be the next Cinderella Man, because there won't be a career resurgence. He's moving on with his life. As writers, we also move on to covering other players. I may write for the next 40 years, but those years combined will not produce as many words about Rice as I have here. My hope is when someone is researching Rice decades from now, and they're wondering why 2009 looks like such an outlier, they can still find a little retrospective like this and learn he was a good player with the potential to be great.

What could have been had he stayed healthy.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 24 Jul 2014

3 comments, Last at 23 Sep 2014, 2:24pm by

Comments

1
by RolandDeschain :: Thu, 07/24/2014 - 2:42pm

As a Seahawks fan, I think I've got something in my eye...

Great write-up, Scott. He'll never be recognized as having the skill he truly did when healthy, which is too bad. Thanks for what you've done for Seattle, Sidney; and I'm glad you got a ring.

#GoHawks

2
by Pen :: Fri, 07/25/2014 - 9:56pm

Right there with Roland. Must be the hayfever...great write up Scott.