Pelissero: Right or wrong, there is logic behind Rice's deliberation
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The scene was set for the Minnesota Vikings' mess on Aug. 23.
That's when top receiver Sidney Rice -- weeks after pledging there was "no doubt" he'd play in the season opener -- flew to Colorado and underwent surgery to repair his ailing hip.
And in the months that followed, they cut Walker, signed Hank Baskett, tried to trade for Vincent Jackson, did trade for Randy Moss, cut Randy Moss ... an unmerry-go-round of receivers compounding quarterback Brett Favre's late arrival to produce an arrhythmic air attack that's failed the Vikings again and again during their 3-6 thud.
It's now been nearly three months, and the Vikings still are waiting for Rice. There is no expectation within the organization he'll be the same player who made his first Pro Bowl in 2009 -- not after all the time he's missed. But he looked good enough in two weeks of practice the Vikings were eager to activate him for last weekend's game at Chicago.
For Rice, though, it's understandably difficult to incentivize a return at anything less than 100% health, skill and confidence, as he and 20 other Vikings prepare to enter a hazy offseason with no assurances they'll play more than seven more games in Minnesota.
"We're never going to chide a guy," coach Brad Childress said on Thursday. "The peer pressure in the locker room to play, to get up if you can get up, is hard enough as it stands. It doesn't make any difference what (the injury) is."
Rice vehemently denied this week he's biding his time because of contract matters, but really, his point is semantic. Right or wrong, it's logical a highly talented player with no long-term security would be wary of representing himself poorly on tape all 32 teams will view -- or worse, suffering a setback following surgery Rice has described as "very serious."
So, Rice continues to practice hard, tantalizing coaches with the irreplaceable skillset that yielded 93 catches and 12 touchdown receptions a year ago, while giving no guarantee his answer will be different this Saturday than last.
Either way, Rice gets his weekly game check of $32,353 -- a pittance compared to what he could command on the open market. Whether he'll get a chance to cash in when his four-year rookie contract expires in March, however, is perhaps even cloudier than the nature of Rice's injury.
Absent a new collective-bargaining agreement, owners would lock out players, potentially cutting into the 2011 season. And if a new agreement is reached, the rules of free agency could change drastically, from increasing the qualification for free agency (five or six years instead of four) to eliminating the franchise and transition tags used for years to retain top players on one-year deals.
Both possibilities contributed to a massive drop in league-wide spending this past offseason, leaving even proactive teams such as the Vikings with lists of ascending players unsigned for 2011. Only eight teams have fewer players signed for 2011 than the Vikings, who have a little more than $90 million in salary and bonuses committed to 34.
Linebacker Chad Greenway tops the list of potential free agents that most notably includes Rice, end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, kicker Ryan Longwell, defensive tackle Pat Williams and quarterback Brett Favre, who is expected to retire after 20 seasons.
Also unsigned beyond this season are safety Husain Abdullah, Baskett, offensive lineman Ryan Cook, defensive tackle Fred Evans, safety Eric Frampton, linebacker Erin Henderson, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, receiver Jaymar Johnson, receiver Greg Lewis, end Brian Robison, cornerback Lito Sheppard, fullback Naufahu Tahi, cornerback Frank Walker and halfback Albert Young.
It's unclear what interest the Vikings have in retaining Edwards, leaving Greenway and Rice as the most vital players under age 30 to retain. But the offseason's No. 1 in-house priority has to be All-Pro halfback Adrian Peterson, who probably will be reluctant to play out the final year of his own rookie contract -- despite a scheduled base salary of $10.72 million, with millions more available in escalators and incentives -- when his next deal could include $30 million in guarantees.
Asked whether it's difficult not to think about the future, Peterson said, "It's not difficult. Not to say that things like that don't cross your mind. But you've got to stay focused on what's at hand, and we still have a long season in front of us. You just can't dwell on (those things). It's a fight, but then ultimately, I win that battle."
Part of Rice's battle might include the memory of 2008, when he returned from a sprained posterior cruciate ligament after three games and was hampered the rest of the season. Just like a hamstrung 2009 might have crossed the mind of fellow receiver Bernard Berrian -- who likewise could be on the market next offseason unless the Vikings want to pay him $4 million -- before he benched himself after pregame warmups last week.
Maybe this time would be different. Maybe Rice could defy expectations by making an immediate impact for a Vikings team that desperately needs a spark on the verge of playoff elimination. Or maybe Rice feels the pressure, returns just a little too soon, and the result is the same.
In that case, nobody wins. It's just one more mess to clean up.
Only Rice can decide if the risks -- whatever they are in his mind -- are worth the potential impact on his reward later.