Lewis' historic run started with a limp

Jamal Lewis: The Ravens back has bowled over the adversity of career-threatening knee surgery to take a run at the NFL's rushing record.

December 28, 2003|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Jamal Lewis' march toward history comes 18 months removed from when some feared his career was history.

Far from tonight's national spotlight, the Ravens running back was only a shadow of himself during a 2002 minicamp, severely favoring his surgically repaired left knee. Instead of shooting for the NFL's single-season rushing record, Lewis was aiming to run 10 yards without limping.

A growing number of Ravens coaches, players and fans questioned whether Lewis would ever be the same. He wouldn't be - he returned faster, stronger and hungrier.

Carrying that same powerful determination throughout this season, Lewis needs 48 yards rushing to reach 2,000 and 154 yards to surpass Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105, which has stood for 19 years.

Whether he cracks either milestone in the regular-season finale against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, his run for glory will be measured as much by perseverance as his production.

"This is unprecedented," coach Brian Billick said. "When a back can go from 1,300 yards to possibly 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, that's pretty special. You throw in the injury, it defies the odds."

After tearing his anterior cruciate ligament on Aug. 8, 2001, Lewis could have followed the likes of Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson, two Pro Bowl running backs whose careers never recovered after similar knee surgeries.

But Lewis, 24, has blazed a new trail and is within another breakaway run of becoming the fifth player in the league's 83-year history to reach 2,000 yards.

What's more, his comeback is actually a sequel. Lewis blew out his other knee in 1998 as a sophomore at the University of Tennessee.

Like many NFL tacklers, two surgically reconstructed knees have failed to slow him down.

"I'm better than ever," Lewis said. "I look at it this way: I've got a '98 model in this one [pointing to his right knee] and an '01 in this one."

At 5 feet 11, 245 pounds, Lewis is built like a Hummer yet has the acceleration of a Porsche.

That explosive speed didn't surface until after his last knee surgery, when he reinvented himself from a big back to a big-play back.

In his first 33 games, he recorded two runs of 45 yards or more. In his past 15 games, he has broken six.

"After the first year, I'll be honest with you, although he had a great year and showed a great deal of speed, it occurred to me that he didn't have that special speed to pull away up at this level," Billick said. "But clearly, that's not the case."

Concerns about Lewis' knee lingered for Billick until last December, when the burly back took a short swing pass and burst past the New Orleans defense for a 77-yard touchdown.

"When I saw that, that's when I thought, `He's back. He's everything and can be more [than] what he was before,' " Billick said.

These game-breaking runs - which are the product of increased patience to wait for blocks as much as increased speed - separate Lewis from the common backs.

Besides leading the NFL with 51 runs of 10-plus yards, Lewis has gashed defenses for a 20-yard or more gain once every 24 carries.

"You stop him, stop him, stop him," Cleveland linebacker Andra Davis said. "Then, 80 yards."

Stopping Lewis has been virtually impossible this season despite everyone knowing the Ravens' game plan.

The Ravens have the league's most lopsided attack, ranking first in rushing and last in passing. Of the last three backs who have surpassed 2,000 yards, all have had the benefit of playing in a more balanced offense from Dickerson (27th-ranked passing) to Barry Sanders (12th) to Davis (seventh).

Nevertheless, Lewis' 1,952 yards rushing account for 42 percent of the Ravens' offense.

"The one thing I don't think people respect or appreciate is the nature of the yards Jamal has gotten; people that are not as familiar with us, not realizing how many eight-man fronts we have faced," Billick said. "Everybody talks about eight in the box, but nobody has faced it like Jamal. None of the great backs that you are talking about have carried the offensive load for their team the way Jamal has. I think that makes it much more spectacular."

Steeling for a challenge

If Lewis wants to set the NFL single-season rushing record, he will need to break down another wall, or in this case, his own personal Steel Curtain.

Lewis has failed to gain 100 yards in four starts against the Steelers, averaging 70.5 yards against them.

So, what is Pittsburgh's secret?

"Getting off to a good lead," said coach Bill Cowher, whose Steelers have given up 100 yards to three running backs this season. "If you can do that and keep the ball out of the offense's hands, that's the only reason that I think we have been able to slow him down. Jamal Lewis is a very special back."

In Lewis' four starts, the Ravens have had the lead for only 38 minutes, 36 seconds out of a possible 240 minutes. Their average halftime deficit in the past three meetings has been 14.6 points.

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