Don't pass over J. Lewis for MVP if Ravens win title

RAVENS vs. STEELERS

December 28, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

IF THE RAVENS CLINCH the AFC North title today to earn a playoff bid, then Ravens running back Jamal Lewis should be named the NFL's Most Valuable Player over quarterbacks Steve McNair of Tennessee and Peyton Manning of Indianapolis.

No other player in the league would have carried his team into the postseason like Lewis, who as a runner is unmatched as far as speed and power. But what separates Lewis from McNair and Manning, the two favorites, is that the 5-foot-11, 245-pound back can take away an opponent's desire to play against him.

During the 2000 season, Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, then the Titans' linebackers coach, said his players were surprised and worn down by Lewis' power. And then there was last week, when Lewis pummeled Cleveland for 205 rushing yards.

By halftime, the Browns wanted no part of Lewis. On his 72-yard run midway through the third quarter, defensive backs Robert Griffith and Earl Little chose to dive at Lewis' ankles as if they were looking for gophers instead of taking him head on.

Linebackers Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor had that kind of presence. So did Ray Lewis in 2000 when he was draining running backs Corey Dillon, Eddie George and Jerome Bettis. Two running backs quickly come to mind who could physically dominate like Jamal Lewis: Jim Brown and Earl Campbell.

And now it's Lewis, who is chasing down another great running back in Eric Dickerson. Lewis needs 154 yards rushing tonight against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season finale to break Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 set in 1984.

"First of all, for this award, you have to have the numbers," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "The second thing is, with these numbers, are they numbers you are comparing to the league at any given year? With Jamal, we're talking about comparing all-time numbers. To me, that is significant.

"As great as Steve McNair is playing and Peyton Manning, with the great numbers and productivity, we're talking about all-time leading numbers. After you look at the numbers for each player, you have to look at what they mean to their team, and also look at where their team has come from and where they're headed."

That all sounds logical. Indianapolis got knocked out of the first round of the playoffs last year, Tennessee played in the AFC championship game and the Ravens stayed home. But logic won't win out. The NFL's MVP award is like the Heisman, a quarterback showcase.

Since Taylor won the award in 1986, 12 quarterbacks have been named MVP along with five running backs.

The league would love for Manning to win the award. He has the pedigree. His face is all over the TV screen. He has become the poster boy for a league in desperate need of a star quarterback with charisma.

Manning has the numbers: 353 completions out of 528 attempts for 4,047 yards and 28 touchdowns, including six against New Orleans and five vs. Atlanta. But Manning also has weapons in receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James. The Colts can give you a balanced attack running and passing the ball.

Tennessee can't do that. McNair carried the Titans, going from a running team that relied on George to a passing team. But virtually no one knows receivers Derrick Mason and Justin McCareins. They're decent, but nothing special.

McNair, though, has other advantages over Lewis. He has been on prime-time TV three times, including once on Monday Night Football, which for some strange reason wouldn't touch the Ravens in 2003. He is the AFC's top-rated passer, having completed 250 of 400 passes for 3,215 yards and 24 touchdowns. This comes one year after turning in career bests in passing yards (3,387 yards), completions (301) and touchdowns (22).

There were a lot of fans who thought he should have been the MVP last year, when he finished third behind Oakland's Rich Gannon and Green Bay's Brett Favre. McNair's strong showing a year ago might be enough to get him the award this season.

Every team that has played the Ravens this season came with one objective: to stop Lewis. And for him to run for almost 2,000 yards with sore shoulders is unbelievable.

Denver running back Terrell Davis won the MVP in 1998, but he also had quarterback John Elway, tight end Shannon Sharpe and receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. Rams running back Marshall Faulk won the award in 2000, but he had quarterback Kurt Warner, who helped St. Louis set NFL records for passing yards and total yards that season, and Pro Bowl receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

What does Lewis have?

To be honest, close to nothing. The Ravens have the league's worst passing game and have gone through three quarterbacks who have produced very little. They don't have a legitimate deep threat who can stretch defenses.

They have a decent and large offensive line, but it's barely above average. Quite a few times Lewis has made something out of nothing through cutbacks or running through arm tackles. He has the speed to get outside, and the power to run inside.

The Ravens basically have Lewis, who has seen eight players inside the box in every game on almost every play. And yet he finds himself on the tail of Dickerson.

Amazing.

"What is the criteria?" Billick said. "Is it the best player in the game today, or the player that had the most impact on the league? Or, are we talking about the player who had the most impact on his team?

"If we're talking about a framework of having a minimum passing game, where everyone has geared to stop him, where one player has had to carry the load, I think the parameters surrounding Jamal are undeniable. And if we get to the playoffs, that should be the final nail."

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