Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis expressed disappointment yesterday that the team had not offered him a contract extension as promised in the preseason and left open the possibility that he might not return for the 2006 season.
Lewis, 26, has one year remaining on the original six-year, $35.5 million contract he signed in July 2000 when he was the team's top draft pick and the No. 5 selection overall.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has publicly admitted he promised Lewis a new contract after the former University of Tennessee star rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003, but negotiations came to a halt when Lewis was indicted on federal drug charges in February 2004.
During training camp nearly two weeks ago, Lewis said he accepted a plea bargain with federal authorities to serve a four-month prison sentence because team officials guaranteed that the short term would not affect his new contract offer.
According to Lewis and his agent Mitch Frankel, the Ravens have not entered negotiations. Frankel presented the Ravens with a proposal at the start of training camp that would make him one of the highest-paid players in the league.
The Ravens have offered no counterproposal, according to Lewis, but Newsome said there has been opening dialogue.
"The most disappointing thing is that they haven't had any discussions with us. My agent can't even get a telephone call," Lewis said. "They made a promise to us, and I would not have accepted the plea bargain if I knew I wasn't going to get a new deal.
"Instead, I went to the bottom of my life, I took a deal and served a sentence for something I didn't do," said Lewis, who spent four months of the offseason in a federal prison in Florida and two more in an Atlanta halfway house after pleading guilty to using a cell phone to try to set up a cocaine deal. "I would have fought the charges because there was a lot of he-said, she-said accusations. It was out of character for me not to fight it, but the organization said they were behind me."
According to two team sources, the Ravens are strongly considering designating Lewis as their franchise player for next season, denying him the right to become a free agent. The Ravens would have to pay Lewis the average salary of the top five players at his position in the league.
The Ravens are concerned about Lewis being a risk because a new, multi-year contract would require a large signing bonus. If Lewis is assigned the franchise tag, his salary is guaranteed just for one season, and there is no upfront money.
"That's just the way it is," said Newsome about Lewis' situation. "We have the franchise tag available, we have used it before, and we have used it on Mitch Frankel's clients before."
Entering his sixth season with the Ravens, Lewis has had major knee and ankle surgeries and two violations of the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy.
According to Lewis, if the Ravens designate him the franchise player, there would be problems.
"I'll deal with it if it happens, but it would not be in the best interest of the club or myself," Lewis said. "I have a hard time believing the team would do that to me because of what they promised me.
"You can put that franchise tag on a cornerback, wide receiver, quarterback or tight end, but not on a running back like me," Lewis said. "I face eight to nine players in the box every week, and I never complain. I just saddle it up and get it done. Whatever it takes to get us to the Super Bowl, I'll do it."
If the Ravens don't sign him before the season opener, Lewis doesn't foresee a new contract agreement until after the regular season.
By then, it might be too late.
"When you have one year remaining, this [a new contract] is the kind of stuff you get done before the season starts," Lewis said. "Once this train gets started, there is no stopping it. I'll hit 1,000 yards rushing very soon, and then those incentives will kick in.
"Once I get on that roll and we start winning, I won't have time for negotiations," Lewis said. "It's time to concentrate on winning. Once I start getting close to 2,000 yards, forget it."
Lewis said the negotiations will have no impact on his play this season, and that he'll be close to 100 percent Sunday night against the Colts.
Lewis missed three preseason games, but played in the first quarter of Thursday night's 26-20 win against Washington. Lewis had 15 yards on six carries.
"People in Baltimore know what I'm about," said Lewis, who has 5,763 career rushing yards with the Ravens. "They know I play hard every week, and what kind of effort I give. I'm a hard-nosed guy ready to go. I'm not the type of player that is going to come in here wanting a new deal every year. I just want to get paid what I have earned.
"I came in as a rookie, played with a great defense and we controlled the clock with our running game," Lewis said. "I came back from a knee injury to rush for 2,000 yards. When it counted last year, I played with an ankle injury late in the season, and then had surgery. I've come back this year in great shape and ready to play and ready to get paid. I'm only 26. I've got a few more years left to play in me."
Next for Ravens
Matchup: Indianapolis Colts at Ravens in season opener
When: Sept. 11, 8:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13, ESPN/1300 AM, 102.7 FM