As Jamal Lewis awaits trial on federal drug conspiracy charges, casting a shadow of uncertainty over his future as well as the Ravens' Super Bowl hopes, the lingering question in training camp is:
Can Lewis be the same record-breaking running back he was a year ago?
Can he carry this offense once again, this time while bearing the weight from his personal life?
No one can give a definitive answer - not even Lewis himself - but the consensus among club officials, teammates and educated observers is Lewis has a solid chance to shake off distractions like another would-be tackler.
"His mental toughness is extraordinary," said Matt Simon, Lewis' position coach for the past four years. "He's the type of individual that is courageous enough to undertake some of the most difficult tasks that a human being would have to endeavor. I think he would be up to anything."
The Ravens' faith is not a blind one. Their confidence comes from knowing that he exuded determination in overcoming a difficult injury history (season-ending, reconstructive knee surgeries in 1998 and 2001) and displayed a steely focus last season in compiling the second-most yards in NFL history (2,066), while knowing the charges were on the horizon.
Lewis, 24, was charged with conspiring to possess, with the intent to distribute, 5 kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in the commission of that act. He faces a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years if convicted. A team official said Lewis had hired his legal team before last season to prepare for the possibility of being charged based on an incident that took place in the summer of 2000.
No trial date has been set, though it appears as if the trial could be held during the regular season or shortly thereafter. A request will be made to delay the trial until after the season, Lewis' attorney said.
Coach Brian Billick said the organization continues to monitor Lewis closely because "human nature would dictate that it's apt to be a distraction."
The Ravens, though, might be surprised how well the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year deals with the pressure. Joel Fish, a noted psychologist and consultant to the Philadelphia 76ers, Flyers and Phillies, said athletes have a favorable history of reacting to personal trauma.
"The more chaotic their world is outside, the more their turf becomes a sanctuary," Fish said. "That's the place where they relax the most. That's the place where they can find the most joy and comfort to get away from the personal stress. I'm always amazed how a lot of professional athletes are able to come into the locker room and stadium to focus on the task at hand.
"From that point of view, a guy like Jamal Lewis might perform well and may even perform better."
Case in point: Kobe Bryant's success in the playoffs while facing an upcoming sexual assault trial. The three times he returned from a hearing, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star scored 31, 42 and 31 points.
Typically, professional athletes can cope with such issues because of their high mental skills, which include confidence, composure and concentration.
"I think the great athletes are extremely flexible in dealing with mental distractions," said Richard Gordin, sports psychologist at Utah State University who will work with the U.S. Olympic track and field team in Athens. "And once they are in that arena, nobody can get at them."
Unfortunately for the Ravens, there are no guarantees.
"We're not talking about machines," said Fish, the director of the Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia. "Can their personal life affect their performance? Absolutely. To assume they're able to block all that out may not always be the case."
If the Ravens intend to make a Super Bowl run, they need a focused Lewis.
The workhorse of the offense, Lewis produced 46 percent of the total offense (2,271 of 4,929 yards) last season. No player in the league accounted for more of his team's total yards from scrimmage than Lewis.
When recently asked about his focus, Lewis said, "Mentally, everything is good."
Lewis, who has been instructed by lawyers and team officials not to talk about the case after addressing the media in a news conference in June, has let his actions speak for his mind-set.
Sporting a sleek physique, he is in the best shape of any previous training camp, a product of a laborious offseason. He said last month that the charges have "made me madder, made me work harder, given me some drive when I'm working out."
Said fullback Alan Ricard: "He's a mentally strong kid. I've trained with him so I've seen his focus and determination coming out of his body."
Team officials said they discuss the case with him only when necessary and have not seen any indication of Lewis being distracted in minicamps or the start of training camp.
"Based on being around him through the minicamps, I think he can handle it," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Jamal's sanity comes when he is on the football field. That's what he can control."