Eyes focus on J. Lewis as knee gets acid test

Ravens: The star running back's recovery from ligament surgery will be tested tomorrow when the rough stuff begins.


July 28, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis' comeback trail now becomes a collision course.

The Ravens' star running back intensifies his yearlong return from reconstructive surgery tomorrow when he takes his first hit since blowing out his left knee Aug. 8.

By watching Lewis cut through traffic and bounce off tacklers, the Ravens will have a better handle on how far he has come since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament - and how close he is to the power runner who carried the offense in their Super Bowl run.

NFL history shows it takes a player with a torn ACL between a year and 18 months to truly regain his game. Lewis argues he will be back to his old self this season.

In reality, no one knows.

"I feel like I'm the best running back in the league," Lewis said. "All I have to do is get back on the field and show what I can do."

Successfully reconstructing the franchise hinges on a successfully rebuilt Lewis.

That's why the Ravens have publicly harped on the positives of Lewis' recovery. He has come back from a major knee injury once before. He was injured early enough in training camp so that he's had nearly a year to recuperate. And he participated in every off-season camp, suffering no setbacks.

But the Ravens realize there are no guarantees. They know the stories of Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson, two premier running backs of the '90s who have only been shadows of themselves since similar knee operations.

How Lewis handles the physical pain and mental strain of training camp likely will clue the Ravens on what direction he's headed. So, until he takes that first carry tomorrow, the Ravens can only wait and wonder.

"Regardless of how veteran they are or how strong their constitution is, I think any player has to mentally get through that barrier," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Can he come back and be as strong as he was before? You don't know.

"If the knee is still strong - which it appears to be - I wouldn't preclude him being a 25- to 30-carry a game back. He's certainly that kind of runner. That's what we drafted him to do. Is that overly ambitious coming off an injury of that nature? Maybe a little."

More likely, the 22-year-old will need more time before flashing that rare blend of speed and brute force. Some team officials predict that won't happen until midseason.

Rebounding from a knee injury can be more mental than physical.

It's in the head

Players worry something is wrong after the slightest twinge, even though the ACL is no more likely to be re-injured than its counterpart in the other knee. It's tough to trust the knee again when planting hard and making cuts.

"That's the difference in saying it's a two-year injury and a one-year injury," said Lewis, who overcame major surgery to his right knee in 1998. "Physically, you can be all right, but mentally, that could mess you up. You just have to know everything is all right and you're all healed."

While Lewis has conquered a similar injury, it still remains a mental roadblock.

"I'm sure it's sitting in the back of his mind," trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "But it's one of those things that until somebody lands on it and you get up and realize that it bends and functions, that it kind of leaves the back of your mind."

Another problem is when a player unconsciously places a strain on another part of his body while nursing his repaired knee.

"What you have to do is get over the fear of protecting that one injury," said Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' senior vice president of football operations, "and just go ahead and go."

Lewis' biggest physical hurdle is getting smaller.

He reported to camp at 245 pounds and wants to lose 10 pounds by the season opener Sept. 8. The more weight he loses, the less stress is placed on his surgically repaired knees.

"I'm still as quick and fast as I want to be," he said.

Newsome isn't worried about quickness as much as Lewis' ability to change directions and keep his acceleration on long runs.

Pruitt recalled

In the off-season camps, Lewis occasionally limped after long runs because his left knee still wasn't as strong as his right. There were also times when it seemed he lacked his usual fluid stride.

It's a scenario similar to that of running back Greg Pruitt, Newsome's former Cleveland Browns teammate who tore his ACL more than 20 years ago.

"When he came back, he still could get through the holes and make people miss," Newsome said. "What he lost was his long speed."

The Ravens are wary of tiring out Lewis. They will likely work him hard and then back off, looking to reduce fatigue and swelling.

"For me, it's my job to worry," Billick said. "It's going to go beyond Monday. For me, it's going to be every time we hand him the ball, I'm going to be concerned."

Before projecting Lewis' production in the regular season, the Ravens need to get him through the preseason unscathed. In his first two seasons in the NFL, Lewis has yet to get through training camp without sustaining an injury.

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