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Sunday, December 9, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Jerry Brewer
Healthy Sidney Rice adds dash to Seahawks' offense

By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist

Sidney Rice is running. He's like Forrest Gump, only smoother and with much better hair.

The Seahawks' peppy and — yes — healthy wide receiver inspires teasing from his teammates about his constant sprinting. They kid him when he dashes to the end zone after every reception in practice and when he dashes back to the huddle, when he dashes onto the field and when he dashes back to the locker room. He just laughs and continues to run. He glides, actually. There's nothing more natural than watching Rice move swiftly and effortlessly.

"I'm one of those guys that just loves to be on the field," Rice said. "It feels great. I love the game. I'm so fortunate to be out on that field."

If you know Rice's injury history, then you understand why he has such a refreshing perspective. Maybe he runs so much because he knows how fleeting this dream can be.

Injuries have burdened his six-year NFL career. He has played all 16 games just once, in 2009, his only Pro Bowl season. The previous two seasons had been especially difficult. He was limited to 15 games during that span because of a long list of ailments: hip, both shoulders, multiple concussions. He endured questions about his toughness and doubt about whether he was durable enough to be a No. 1 receiver.

Look at Rice now, though. He's in his second season with the Seahawks, and finally, it looks like he's back.

He's starting to show the skill and playmaking that Seattle sought when it gave him a lucrative contract before last season that guarantees him $18.5 million. Seahawks general manager John Schneider signed Rice to that deal despite the injury history because he knew what you're seeing: When healthy, Rice is an impact player.

Rice hasn't missed a game this season. His numbers are still modest (43 catches, 643 yards) because the Seahawks attempt the fewest passes per game in the NFL. But two of his seven touchdown receptions have been game-winning plays, including his overtime snag against Chicago last week. If you were concerned about his durability, it was heart-stopping but ultimately reassuring to watch Rice absorb a punishing blow on that play. He was lying on the field for several minutes, then rose and laughed about it in the locker room 45 minutes later.

The Seahawks and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson have gradually improved the passing game over the course of the season. Besides Wilson's rapid maturation, the key has been streamlining the passing attack to focus on Rice and receiver Golden Tate.

It's something that Rice admits he and Tate gently lobbied for early in the season, when the Seahawks were focused too heavily on just running the football, playing good defense and trying to win by making the fewest mistakes possible. That led to mediocre results, so Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has loosened the reins, little by little, over the past month and a half.

It culminated in the Seahawks' finest offensive performance of the season against Chicago. Wilson passed for 293 yards and two touchdowns, and he also rushed for 71 yards, playing with absolute freedom. Rice had six receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown. Tate caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. And the emphasis on Rice and Tate benefited the entire offense. Eight receivers caught passes last Sunday.

"We knew what we were going to be early in the season," Rice said. "We knew we were going to give teams a heavy dose of Marshawn Lynch and let Russell get comfortable. But we also knew teams were going to start stacking the box and try to take away Marshawn. Golden and I always told the coaches, 'We'll be available when the time comes. When we're called on, we'll be there and be ready.' We're getting our chance now."

Carroll says opening up the offense and giving more opportunities to Rice and Tate have been essential to the Seahawks' improvement.

"I would say that was probably one of the best decisions that we made," he said. "I think things have really turned up since then. They've done a tremendous job. They've made great plays. They've been consistent, and you can see their numbers are about parallel. I think it was just the commitment."

It's easier to commit to Rice now. When he takes a hit, you don't immediately wonder how his body will react. The comebacks of Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson are the best stories in the NFL this season, but Rice's return from surgery on both shoulders and concussion issues is a tale to be appreciated, too.

In addition to a meticulous training regimen to strengthen his body, Rice has altered his diet. He has given up drinking sodas. And he has become obsessed with stretching. He even stretches in the meeting room, and his teammates joke with him about that, too.

"Hey, whatever it takes," Rice says, smiling. "It sucks sitting on the sideline."

Ask Rice about criticism he has received because of his injuries, and he says, "I would say it's always a little unfair. We don't expect to get hurt or try to get hurt. Most of the time, these are injuries that couldn't be prevented."

Rice isn't into redemption. Mostly, "just out there having fun. It's so exciting to be a part of a team that's so committed to each other."

Rice looks at the clock, realizes it's almost time for practice and excuses himself. Then he dashes to the training room.

He's running again. He doesn't have any shoes or socks on, but he's running.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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