Have stalled contract talks caused J. Lewis to sputter?

On the Ravens

October 04, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

The Ravens are three games into the season, and we're still waiting for the old Jamal Lewis to return. The old No. 31 would take a handoff to the left and cut back instantly to the right. Swoosh. Gone.

The old Jamal Lewis kept defensive backs up at night, wondering how they were going to handle those high knee lifts, pumping thighs and huge biceps as that big body crashed into their chest. Not once, not twice, but several times each quarter.

We're seeing a Lewis who has shown improvement, but will we ever see the old one in 2005? It's not that he has lost a step, recovering from an ankle injury. It's nothing physical. We're dealing with something different. For lack of a better term, let's call it CMS: Chris McAlister Syndrome.

Lewis is an unhappy camper. You can see it in his body language. You can see it in his running style. There's a lot of hesitation, and not nearly enough explosion. Lewis always has had problems holding onto the football, but that's usually past the line of scrimmage, not near the point of exchange.

This isn't about fading skills. It's about money. The Ravens, according to Lewis, promised him a new contract before the start of the season, but there hasn't been much movement on the Ravens' side toward a new deal.

The current word is that the Ravens want to put the franchise-player designation on Lewis, who is in the final year of his original contract. That means the Ravens would have to pay him the average salary of the top five players at his position.

Lewis wants a new deal that will make him one of the league's highest-paid players, regardless of position.

Haven't we been here before?

We saw it the past two seasons, especially last year, with McAlister. Like Lewis, the cornerback felt he deserved a new contract. Like Lewis, the Ravens made threats to put a franchise tag on him, and then it became a reality.

And like Lewis, McAlister was there in body last season but not spirit. Unlike McAlister, Lewis is a focal point of the offense and has to touch the ball.

"He left some yards on the field, and he knows that," coach Brian Billick said yesterday of Lewis, who rushed for 81 yards on 29 carries against the New York Jets on Sunday.

"He saw that he was anxious and rushed a little bit. The latter part of the game he slowed himself down, so I think both physically and from a rhythm standpoint we can be very optimistic that he's up and running. Physically, he looks fine."

Lewis had his best day rushing Sunday, but there was never a time when you thought the real Lewis was back.

The only time he came close to his old form was after he fumbled early in the third quarter, a mistake that almost cost the Ravens the game. You could see anger in his face.

You could see passion when he ran the ball afterward, because he was no longer going to be denied. For a few brief moments, Lewis wanted to take over the game again, just like old times. He had won the battle over his mind.

For the average adult, it's hard to feel any compassion for Lewis because he has made millions of dollars.

He came to training camp a few days late but in great shape. His spirits were high because he thought the Ravens were going to keep their promise of a new deal.

But that attitude changed because no new deal was done. The Ravens realized it, and they have tried to push the mute button on Lewis, but it hasn't worked.

He voiced his frustration with the front office about negotiations a week before the season opener, and then last week voiced his opinion about not having fullback Alan Ricard in the lineup, and suggested the Ravens went without Ricard because they wanted more balance and to pass more.

No one can muzzle Lewis, just like no one could muzzle McAlister. The question is: How do the Ravens get him to play at a high level again this season if they don't come up with a new contract offer?

The Ravens are going to need Lewis. There's no way around it. The offensive line was solid against the Jets, but it's far from being a dominating group. Part of the reason that Lewis doesn't have a lot of yards is because the offensive line has struggled in run-blocking.

Quarterback Anthony Wright was talking up the line play after the Jets game, but let's get serious. The Ravens controlled the ball because their defense dominated and New York's offense was inept. Of the Jets' 11 possessions, five were three plays and out.

There weren't a lot of holes there, but there were a lot of offensive linemen falling on the ground as the Ravens averaged only 2.6 yards a carry. Lewis, though, has always made the line look better than it really was.

But without a new contract, Lewis might not want to take those beatings anymore. Maybe he doesn't want to wake up sore anymore or risk injury. Maybe he wants to save himself for a new team in case the Ravens want to look elsewhere for a running back.

There are probably a lot of questions going through his head. It's about the money, and Lewis should be concerned because running backs don't last long in this league, especially when they have a physical running style like his.

Even playing with injuries last season, he was still one of the team's top weapons. During the Billick era, this team has had only two consistent offensive weapons. One has been kicker Matt Stover, and the other has been Lewis.

Somehow, they've got to get Lewis back on the field and back in the game again at a high level. Not just physically, but mentally.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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