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Sean Leahy | NFL

What’s next for Ray Rice, the Ravens, and the NFL?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will face scrutiny for his handling of the Ray Rice case.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will face scrutiny for his handling of the Ray Rice case. David Goldman/AP/File

Ray Rice is unemployed and suspended as a result of the video that emerged of him hitting his then-girlfriend in February. He, his former team, and commissioner Roger Goodell all face major questions as the fallout from the incident continues. Here’s a look at scenarios facing each of the stakeholders:

What’s next for Ray Rice?

Rice is suspended indefinitely, and will need to apply to the NFL for reinstatement if he wants to play again. He most likely will sit out all of the 2014 season, and he won’t be able to sidestep the ban by playing in the Canadian Football League, which said it would honor the NFL suspension.

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Rice has become a pariah around the NFL. Companies whose products he endorses are cutting ties, as Nike did Tuesday. EA Sports also removed him from its Madden ’15 video game.

But is it realistic to expect Rice to play in the NFL again down the road?

Patriots owner Robert Kraft doesn’t think so. He said on CBS Tuesday that he’d “be shocked” if another team ever signs Rice.

Still, time may change that. There are 32 clubs and Rice needs only one of them to give him a shot.

Other players such as Michael Vick, Plaxico Burress, and Adam Jones have received similar bans after getting into trouble with the law and have returned to the league.

Like Rice, Vick was a pariah when he was convicted of a federal dogfighting crime in 2007 and banished from the NFL. But Vick, after serving almost two years in prison, returned to the league in 2009. His experience may offer Rice a blueprint for getting back into the league.

Vick reached out to animal rights activists and became a leader in the movement to prevent animal abuse. He showed the NFL he understood the seriousness of his crime and wanted to atone for it.

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Rice will likely need to follow a similar path and become a leading voice against domestic violence.

But there’s another factor working against Rice — his age. At 27, Rice, who would have played his seventh NFL season this year, is fast approaching the end zone of a typical running back’s career, and his performance is trending down. He was coming off his worst season since he became the Ravens starter in 2009, his yards from scrimmage having fallen from 1,621 to 981 last year.

If Rice returns to the NFL, the team that signs him would have to be willing to absorb waves of protests from various groups. The Eagles experienced this when they signed Vick in 2009. It would be a distraction for Rice’s new head coach and teammates.

Would Rice still be worth that? It could be tough for a running back who’ll be 28 in January.

But if Rice does join a team, he almost certainly would be doing so for less money than he would have earned with the Ravens. Rice was still due about $9.5 million on the remaining three years of his $35 million contract that the Ravens terminated Monday. In a potential return, he’d likely be looking at a deal that wouldn’t pay much more than the veteran minimum.

What’s next for the Ravens?

The Ravens, who lost to the Bengals Sunday, host the Steelers Thursday night. So the decision to cut Rice came amid a short week when they’re trying to avoid losing two AFC North games to start the year.

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With Rice gone, coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens would rely on Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro in the short term.

Pierce, who has played the No. 2 role to Rice since being drafted in the third round in 2012, looks like the best option to become the workhorse back. But he fumbled Sunday, and may need to win back the trust of Ravens coaches.

Forsett is a veteran who will provide depth, but he isn’t especially explosive. In the last three years combined, he rushed for 550 yards — though he did rush for 70 in the season opener.

Taliaferro was drafted this year in the fourth round out of lower-division Coastal Carolina, where he rushed for 1,678 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. He’ll get his chances to seize carries.

Off the field, the Ravens have more to do. They announced they will allow fans to trade in their Ray Rice jerseys, as the Patriots did after cutting Aaron Hernandez. But team officials likely need to explain more about their decision to release Rice and why they abandoned what — until the video emerged — had been vigorous support for the running back.

Only Harbaugh spoke publicly about Rice Monday. There may be pressure for general manager Ozzie Newsome, team president Dick Cass, and owner Steve Biscotti to do the same.

What’s next for the NFL?

The handling of the Rice case is the biggest embarrassment to the league during Goodell’s eight-year tenure as commissioner, and the NFL has major work to do to repair its image.

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First, the league needs to provide clarity as to who had access to the video and when. The NFL has claimed it asked for and wasn’t provided access to the video until after TMZ released it. But that explanation hasn’t sounded right to some league insiders, such as ex-Eagles and -Redskins personnel chief Louis Riddick.

Now an analyst for ESPN, Riddick said on “SportsCenter” Tuesday that the NFL’s security officials could have acquired the video even if the league was denied access through official requests to law enforcement.

“If you wanted to actually see that video . . . it could have been had,” Riddick said.

Goodell’s job is not likely in jeopardy; the soaring values of the franchises outweigh the fumbling of the Rice case. But Goodell, who admitted when he overhauled the NFL’s policy against domestic violence late last month that he mishandled Rice’s initial two-game suspension, may face questions privately from team owners.

For example, Giants owner John Mara told the New York Daily News last month he was surprised by the initial light punishment for Rice. So he and his fellow owners will want to know what went wrong — and how Goodell will prevent similar missteps in the future.

Fans and players will want explanations, too. There’s a school of thought that Goodell should authorize an independent audit of the NFL’s handling of the case. But the NFL likes to keep in-house matters in-house, so it’s probably too much to expect a full analysis of the breakdowns to be released publicly.

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Ultimately, Goodell only has to satisfy his 32 team-owning bosses. Patriots owner Robert Kraft showed full support for Goodell in comments to CBS Tuesday.

Goodell’s handling of the case has been “excellent,” Kraft said. “Anyone who’s second-guessing that doesn’t know him.”

Support of the owners notwithstanding, Goodell — who doesn’t often take questions from reporters and tends to speak publicly through written statements — might feel pressure to address his handling of the Rice case. If that happens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him speak to the NFL Network or another broadcast partner of the league such as ESPN or NBC.

Beyond the Rice case, the NFL must assess how it will handle open charges of domestic violence against players such as Carolina’s Greg Hardy and San Francisco’s Ray McDonald. Both players were active in Week 1 after being arrested on domestic violence charges in recent months.

Hardy faces a November jury trial in his case, while McDonald’s case stems from an arrest on Aug. 31. 49ers president Jed York, while saying the team is “just not going to tolerate” domestic violence, said Tuesday it’s too early to respond since formal charges haven’t been filed.

If Goodell decides that the NFL will punish either player — and under the league’s personal conduct policy, a player doesn’t need to be convicted to trigger a punishment — it’s fair to expect that the six-game-suspension benchmark for first offenses established in the league’s new enhanced domestic violence policy would be applied.

But punishing players is not where the NFL wants to be in the national conversation about domestic violence. Expect the league to ramp up partnering with advocacy groups to raise awareness about the dangers of domestic violence, a process that Goodell introduced when he unveiled the new policy last month.

Next month, the NFL is scheduled for its annual showcase of pink gear worn by players and coaches to raise awareness for the fight against breast cancer. While some may question that in light of the Rice situation, it also may be an example of how the league can be more active in fighting domestic violence.

Perhaps it’s a color or a patch worn in honor of victims. Maybe it’s players like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Peyton Manning saying, “It’s not OK to hit a woman,” in a prominent ad campaign splashed across game broadcasts. Expect the NFL to heed the advice of abuse specialists and take a leading role in raising awareness.


Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean