Same as sprain for Ravens star

October 09, 2004|By John Eisenberg

IT SHOULDN'T qualify as a good day when your league fines and suspends your star running back for pleading guilty to a federal drug charge.

But given the alternatives the Ravens faced when Jamal Lewis was indicted last winter, a fine and two-game suspension from the NFL qualifies as grounds for celebration.

Lewis' predicament had several potential resolutions that were disastrous for the team. He could have gone to prison for years, destroying his career, had he fought the charges in court and lost. He also could have missed chunks of this and next season while swimming in murky legal waters.

Instead, he will be suspended for just two games this month and serve his entire prison sentence after the regular season.

To say the Ravens are relieved would be putting it mildly.

Just months ago, they were entertaining thoughts of having to find a permanent replacement for an irreplaceable player after Lewis' legal troubles surfaced. But he won't be gone long, it turns out.

They can't jump for joy because drug charges are serious business and one of their best players is going to prison, and none of that is the least bit joyful.

Lewis surely isn't happy about losing $761,000 in missed pay and fines, either.

Still, all things considered, this resolution amounts to a best-case scenario for the Ravens. The damage to their on-field affairs is minimal.

Two games?

That's what a player with a strained hamstring or sore quadriceps misses.

A player with a high ankle sprain usually misses more.

A player facing federal drug charges, meanwhile, is looking at missing multiple seasons and possibly the rest of his career if the legal winds blow against him.

Missing two games is nothing, comparatively.

Can you throw a parade to celebrate your best offensive player getting suspended?

At the very least, this should quash the half-baked notion (continually and tiresomely parroted by Ravens coach Brian Billick) that commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his fellow NFL higher-ups are conspiring against the Ravens.

It's a bunch of hogwash, and Lewis' mild sentencing proves it.

If the league really wanted the Ravens to fail, it would have hammered Lewis harder with, say, a four-game or eight-game suspension.

Instead, it gave him a pulled hamstring.

Oh, sure, Tagliabue talked tough in a statement released yesterday, suggesting Lewis' "poor judgment" might cause "long-term damage" to his reputation.

But make no mistake, the tough talk was offered in place of tough action.

There were doubts about the league's right to adjudicate at all because Lewis had committed his crime more than four years ago, before he signed with the Ravens. That injected enough gray area into the issue to enable Lewis' lawyers to negotiate with the league rather than just sit back and hope for the best.

Those negotiations led to the agreement on a two-game suspension, which, you can be sure, Lewis knew about before he pleaded guilty Thursday in Atlanta.

He agreed to the plea not guessing but knowing it would cause minimal disruption to his career and the Ravens' fortunes.

It became a risk-reward no-brainer once the details were determined.

Sure, agreeing to spend four months in prison was, no doubt, a heartbreaking decision for Lewis; as Tagliabue suggested, it is difficult to outrun the ungainly label that comes with such a turn in your life.

The prison time guarantees that Lewis' offseason will be humbling, to say the least. He could come out carrying some heavy psychological baggage, although, given his seemingly positive attitude, that's doubtful. (Question: Will his minicamp absences be listed as excused or unexcused?)

But in the end, that and the lost wages were outweighed by the surprising chance to continue his brilliant career virtually uninterrupted.

What's two missed games during the first half of a season when he could have missed the playoff drive, the playoffs themselves, all of next season or the rest of his career?

The Ravens got off even easier. All they have to deal with is another blow to their national image, which means nothing.

They also have to survive the two games without Lewis, but come to think of it, that might actually have a positive impact.

Without Lewis to depend on, Billick and his assistants might gain a greater appreciation for him and start giving him the 25 or more carries a game that his talent warrants, as opposed to the 19 he is currently averaging.

At the very least, maybe they will stop throwing on third-and-one or third-and-two and start giving the ball to their hard-charging runner who gained more than 2,000 yards last season.

Either way, Lewis will barely be gone long enough to be missed, and given some of the ominous alternatives that loomed just weeks ago, the Ravens will gladly take that deal.

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