The Ravens' chances for repeating as Super Bowl champions suffered a devastating blow last night, when the team learned that Jamal Lewis suffered a tear of one ligament and a sprain of another in his left knee and will likely be lost for the season.
The Ravens' star running back will need surgery after suffering a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
It would mark the second time in four years that Lewis would have his season end because of an ACL injury.
Only 10 minutes before the end of the morning practice, Lewis took a hit on the knee by reserve defensive tackle Kelly Gregg. After limping off to the sideline, he was examined briefly by trainers and then walked gingerly on his own power to the locker room.
The injury was originally diagnosed as a knee bruise, and Lewis was sent for precautionary tests. An MRI later revealed the tear. Although surgery has yet to be scheduled for Lewis, the team holds no hope of bringing him back to play this season.
Lewis, the explosive second-year standout from the University of Tennessee, represents one of the few irreplaceable parts for the Ravens. The fifth pick overall in the 2000 draft, he set the team single-season rushing record with 1,364 yards and scored six touchdowns and carried the offense at times during the Ravens' Super Bowl run.
For the short term, the Ravens will turn to unproven backup Jason Brookins, a veteran of three practice squads last season. But owner Art Modell said last night that the team will explore trading for a more high-profile replacement. The speculation is that the Ravens may shop a player from its record-breaking defense.
The team has scheduled a press conference for today.
"As a team, we have to move forward and find other ways to get the production we lose with Jamal's absence," coach Brian Billick said. "We will adjust. We have to adjust. We have a team of champions, they'll respond."
Gregg, who is trying to make the team, was not distraught when told of Lewis' likely season-ending injury.
"It was an accident," Gregg said. "I came off the ball trying to get penetration like any other play. It was just a freak accident."
The news has an eerily similar ring to Lewis.
His sophomore year at Tennessee was limited to four games because of an ACL injury to his right knee. For that reason, the Ravens were criticized by some for drafting Lewis that high.
"This is difficult for Jamal," Billick said. "He worked so hard to prepare for this season, and he certainly is a very important player for us."
Lewis' injury further unraveled the Ravens' plan to transform their 16th-ranked offense from a year ago.
It was only five days after the Ravens lost right tackle Leon Searcy for 10 to 12 weeks. In the first play of Friday's scrimmage, Searcy tore a triceps tendon in his left arm.
The Ravens had an immediate answer for Searcy, replacing him with last year's starter, Harry Swayne. They don't have such a luxury with Lewis, who accounted for 33 percent of the Ravens' total offense last year.
"Everybody on offense has to step up," starting receiver Brandon Stokley said. "To lose somebody like that hurts so much. But we as receivers have to step up."
At this point, the Ravens had little choice but to name Brookins as their starter. Last year's dependable backup, Priest Holmes, left as a free agent to start for the Kansas City Chiefs, and fifth-round pick Chris Barnes has been one of training camp's bigger disappointments.
The Ravens may also opt for more three-receiver sets as well, using fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo as a single back.
"This is a momentary setback," Modell said. "I have confidence in my coaching staff and my players. We are a resilient team.
"We will be all right. We got a good football team. We have a good quarterback and good receivers. We will miss Jamal, but we will come back. That's what championship teams do."
Then, there is the possibility of a trade because the free-agent market doesn't impress the Ravens. It is believed that free agents such as Errict Rhett, Adrian Murrell and Greg Hill wouldn't be a good fit as a featured back.
In 1999, Rhett led the Ravens in rushing with 852 yards before leaving the team as a free agent after Lewis was drafted and later signing with Cleveland for the 2000 season.
In the event of a trade, the Ravens are believed to have enough salary cap room to afford a veteran running back in the $600,000-$700,000 range for this season.
"Our intentions are to evaluate the running backs on our roster to see if one or more can step up to replace Jamal," said Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of football operations. "Plus, we'll exhaust every effort to add another running back to our roster before the start of the regular season."
Injuries have hindered Lewis throughout his short NFL career.
Last year as a rookie, he dislocated his left elbow July 28 in a scrimmage against the Washington Redskins. He missed a month before returning to finish the regular season as the AFC's sixth-leading rusher.
During the playoffs, Lewis' production fell off after he suffered soreness in his left knee. After decreased reps in practice, he went on to rush for 102 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
The Ravens, though, have stressed that they are not panicking.
Said Modell: "One person cannot undo what we did last season."
Sun staff writer Brent Jones contributed to this article.