Backing up J. Lewis helps now, in future

September 21, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

JAMAL LEWIS didn't come close to eating up ground on Sunday the way he did a year ago.

Who'll ever forget that day? Second game of the season, at home against Cleveland, Lewis made NFL history by running as many steps as a fleet of Kenyan marathoners.

Two hundred and ninety-five yards. Oxygen, please.

Sunday's total of 62 yards was, well, mortal. Still, the post-game look on Lewis' face was as relieved as it had been a year ago, when the 295 yards sent Lewis on a season-long assault on Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.

It was a look that said Lewis will take the 62 yards and the win over Pittsburgh, knowing his teammates have his back - in more ways than one.

When Sunday's game was over and backup Chester Taylor had collected 76 yards - 14 more than reigning NFL rush king Lewis - it was tempting to see two reasons why the Ravens asked Taylor to carry the ball nine times.

Sure, Taylor gives the Ravens' offense a different look. It's a good way to mix up the running game, alternating the bull-rushing brute force of Lewis with more of a pure speed guy in Taylor.

It worked, too. Taylor busted a 35-yard run in the Ravens' opening touchdown drive. It was an instant confidence boost for an offense that needs to do more than get out of the way of the Ravens' defense if it intends to roll into the postseason.

But with Taylor figuring into the mix as much as he did in the Ravens' 30-13 victory over the Steelers, it was also a reminder: The Ravens might very well be preparing Taylor, along with second-year running back Musa Smith, to take over the lion's share of the running game come Nov. 1.

That's the day Lewis' trial on federal drug conspiracy charges is set to begin in Atlanta.

"Who says I'm not going to be here?" Lewis said, tucking a fine, striped cotton shirt into his tailored suit pants.

There's a difference between being here and being in the backfield, ready to take the handoff.

Coach Brian Billick has said Lewis could certainly be sidelined those weeks he's not with the team for practices. At the very least, it's a fluid situation for which the Ravens have yet had to make a firm decision.

Even if Lewis can talk the coach into letting him play without taking snaps or being at practice all week, who's to say what Lewis' conditioning will be like come game time? We all know what Lewis would say. The ball is his, as long as he's there in a uniform. It's nice to have Taylor and Smith behind him, keeping the chains moving when he's winded, but let's face it, they're behind him - now and later.

"That's my plan. I'm a professional. I've been doing this a long time. I want to keep it rolling," Lewis said.

If there is any doubt how the tone of Sunday's game was set, just look at the first four plays from scrimmage. It was all J. Lewis - for 4 yards, 9 yards, 11 yards, 5 yards.

It was an angry and brutal explosion of running by Lewis, who twisted and turned and spun around defenders, willing every possible yard out of his ever-churning legs.

At the Pittsburgh 18, Lewis took three of the next four carries, including the 3-yard run that was the Ravens' first touchdown of the season.

It makes you wonder what kind of team this will be, if indeed Lewis is kept off the field - by any circumstance.

If Lewis was frustrated and hacked off in Game 1 at Cleveland, getting only 20 carries in that loss to the Browns, what's he going to be like if he gets fewer than that or, worse, no carries? "I want to see them try and keep Jamal on the sideline," Jonathan Ogden said, smiling at the thought.

The Ravens play in Philadelphia Oct. 31, and the next morning, Lewis is due in court. They play at home Nov. 7 against Cleveland at 8:30 p.m.

In the world of private jets, it's a cell-phone speed dial away for Lewis to shuttle back and forth to Atlanta. Kobe Bryant just spent a season shuttling back and forth to Eagle, Colo., refusing to miss NBA games, even when his plane touched down minutes before tip-off.

Determined to continue playing despite the rape charges he faced, and later saw dropped, Bryant defiantly flung off advice and criticism that his legal situation would be a distraction to the team or that he would not be able to perform under the weight of the legal trouble.

Lewis has clearly embraced playing, too. It's not so much a distraction. It's a proving ground. Lewis started the season, just as a trial date was being set, determined to show he was still the best back in the league.

"This is my family," he said about the team.

"It helps to focus. It makes you stronger, dealing with adversity," he said.

Maybe it's wishful thinking to hope the things you do on the football field have any bearing in a legal case that could result in a jail sentence.

"What's going to happen is going to happen. I just need to keep on going and do my job. There are extenuating circumstances, and this is where I release it. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. People know me. I'm a good guy. Now I know that hurdle is coming. I've got to face it. Until I do, give me the ball," he said.

That's the Ravens' best game plan, for sure. There's no other Jamal Lewis. That doesn't mean the Ravens don't need an insurance policy.

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