Ravens: '04 plans include J. Lewis

Team confident star back will be cleared

Billick: `We have ... faith in Jamal'

March 03, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Speaking at length for the first time about Jamal Lewis since his indictment, Ravens officials said yesterday that they are "confident" their star running back will play the 2004 season.

Lewis, the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year in 2003, pleaded not guilty last week to federal charges that he helped arrange a major cocaine deal for a hometown friend in the summer of 2000. No trial date was set for Lewis, but a team spokesman said the case could go to trial as early as June.

At yesterday's news conference, which was intended to address the team's plans for free agency, coach Brian Billick predicted Lewis will be cleared.

"We have a great deal of faith in Jamal and a great deal of faith in the process," Billick said. "I have no doubt he will find his way out of this difficulty."

General manager Ozzie Newsome said the uncertainty about Lewis hasn't influenced the team's plans heading into free agency, which begins today.

Lewis, 24, is the centerpiece of the Ravens' offense, producing the second-highest rushing total in NFL history last season. He accounted for 42 percent of the offense and scored 14 of the team's 34 offensive touchdowns.

"We stand by Jamal," Newsome said. "Nobody knows Jamal as well as we do. Right now, that hasn't altered our offseason plans at all."

Said Billick: "We're certainly cognizant of this situation, but it's not driving us in any sense."

If the Ravens address the running back position in the draft - perhaps in the later rounds - team officials said that shouldn't be construed as a lack of support for Jamal.

"Anything we do that happens to come along three weeks from now or in the draft, you would be ill-advised to read between the lines," Billick said.

Signing a free-agent running back is considered a low priority since the Ravens have capable backups in Musa Smith and Chester Taylor.

Smith, in particular, is a power back similar to Lewis and is viewed by the coaching staff as possessing excellent potential. As a rookie, he ran nine times for 31 yards and two touchdowns.

"I feel very good about the depth of our running backs corps," Billick said. "I'm excited to see Musa take that next step. I think we all saw glimpses of it with the limited time he had."

A team spokesman said Lewis might speak to the media at the team's minicamp in early May. His lawyers have advised him not to talk to reporters until that time.

Ravens officials said they will not speak again about Lewis unless there is a change in the case. "We're not going to do a play-by-play here," Billick said.

These charges aren't the first time the Ravens have had to deal with off-the-field problems involving Lewis.

While out on injured reserve in 2001, Lewis served a four-game suspension for his second violation of the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse program. In Stage 2 of the program, Lewis was subjected to as many as 10 random drug tests per month for an indefinite period.

Since that suspension, there have been no reported problems with Lewis. Team officials said Lewis has matured during the past 2 1/2 years.

"He has come out and proven over a period of time that he is a viable, functioning member of this team, of this city and of the NFL," Billick said. "He can be very proud of that, and we're very proud of the human being Jamal Lewis is today."

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