When Jamal Lewis last left Tennessee, he sustained some critical parting shots. But the rookie running back returns to that state Sunday as the biggest punch in the Ravens attack.
Lewis has turned from a draft-day gamble to an offensive jackpot, leading all NFL rookies with 856 yards from scrimmage. In fact, the former University of Tennessee standout has paced the Ravens the past two weeks by accounting for half of the team's total yards.
The Ravens remember the cries of skepticism for making Lewis the first running back taken over the likes of Thomas Jones, Ron Dayne and Shaun Alexander. But guess who is the only back among that group leading his team in rushing?
"A lot of people make a big deal about him being the No. 5 pick," Ravens running backs coach Matt Simon said. "I'd take him at any pick. My feeling is he's beginning to develop the characteristics of the back that I think he can be."
Lewis has shaken off tacklers this season as handily as the post-draft bashing from the media, the league and his hometown fans.
CNN college football analyst Trev Alberts described the Ravens' pick of Lewis as "ridiculous." Sports Illustrated reporter Peter King wrote, "Shaun Alexander [the running back selected 19th by Seattle] will be a better pro than Jamal Lewis."
Arizona Cardinals general manager Bob Ferguson, who selected Jones with the No. 7 pick, said he was "stunned" by the Ravens choice and had Lewis rated third on their running back draft board.
And surprisingly, even a majority of the thousands of Tennessee fans responding to a poll on a Volunteers web site voted that Lewis was drafted too high.
"I just wanted to get the opportunity to show what caliber of back I was," said Lewis, who has produced 325 of the Ravens' past 652 total net yards from scrimmage. "I knew I was ready for this level. I didn't think I had anything to prove. I wanted to show Baltimore and the coaches who had confidence in me. I just wanted to prove something to them and forget about what everybody else said."
His success has overshadowed the fact that the 21-year-old Lewis should still be a senior at Tennessee. The Ravens, though, have a running joke with their rookie about how Saturdays in the NFL are about tuning up for games, not watching cartoons.
His youth has surfaced on the field, where Lewis has racked up yards more on talent than technique. Since he's not perfectly in sync with his line yet, he has a tendency to become impatient, missing holes or outrunning his blocks.
It's a raw formula that has worked explosively so far, with Lewis finding open space and punishing would-be tacklers with a brute power. He has cranked out a team-best seven plays of 20-plus yards, including four over the past three games.
"I'm still playing on instincts right now," Lewis said. "I've really not had time to sit down and be able to study the offense and know how everything turns out. Now, I'm finding the holes and hitting it. Sometimes the hole is not really going to be where it's written down on paper. So you've just got to be a running back and run off your instincts and keep moving."
Lewis has hit his stride at a point when most rookies start beginning to tire. But for once in his football career, Lewis may have benefited from an injury.
He missed most of training camp after dislocating his elbow on his first carry in a July 28 scrimmage against the Redskins and didn't see his first NFL action until the Ravens' final preseason game against the New York Giants. So, Lewis bypassed the wear-and-tear and received a gradual introduction into the Ravens' system.
More importantly, he hasn't run tentatively, a criticism of Lewis during college after tearing ligaments in his knee as a sophomore. Since becoming a starter in Week 3, he has averaged 72.3 yards rushing a game and has caught 16 passes for 217 yards, the fourth-best receiving yards total on the Ravens.
It's those type of numbers that justify the Ravens calling Lewis "the total package" while delivering silence to the skeptics.
"We have a long way to go, but at the very least, everybody can see the combination of abilities that we saw in Jamal that the others maybe didn't possess," Billick said. "How that plays out, short-term or long-term, we'll wait and see. Right now with the limited data that we have, we have to feel pretty good about what we did and feel like, yeah, we got this thing sized up about right."
NOTE: The Ravens are hoping to decide today whether to place receiver Travis Taylor (broken collarbone) on injured reserve and fill his spot by signing another receiver. The team, though, did not work out any candidates yesterday.
Next for Ravens
Opponent: Tennessee Titans
Site: Adelphia Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Titans by 4
Ravens running back Jamal Lewis leads all NFL rookies with 856 total yards from scrimmage. A look at the five highest-producing NFL rookies:
Rookie, team Run Rec. Tot.
J. Lewis, Bal 639 217 856
M. Anderson, Den 679 80 759
R. Dayne, NYG 515 10 525
Syl. Morris, KC 0 497 497
Sam. Morris, Buf 261 198 459