Big man warrants no flag for venting over tight spot

October 28, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

It would be easy to crucify Jamal Lewis for admitting yesterday that his contract situation is in the back of his mind and he is "concerned" about his health when he runs the ball.

Plenty of people surely will be calling for Chester Taylor to replace him now that he has grudgingly admitted to being distracted and putting his own interests ahead of the team's.

But you know what? I'm not mad at Lewis. I feel for him.

He's in a bad situation, and he knows it, and all he did yesterday was admit what is obviously true.

The Ravens haven't given him the money he wants or the offensive line he needs, and his ankle hurts, and the window of opportunity for him to cash in is closing.

He wasn't whining when he opened up to reporters yesterday after trying for 10 minutes to hold his tongue and speak the company line. Bless him, he was just being honest.

"I gave and gave and gave over the last five, six years. I gave it all," he said. "Sometimes, it's got to be a change. I expect for it to be easier for me sometimes. I expect I don't have to beat up on defenses all the time. Maybe one day it'll ease up. That's what I'm looking for. Hopefully, that day will come. If not, five or six years from now, I'm going to be tore down."

Five or six years from now? Hey, he might already be torn down. That's what being a Raven has done to him.

Go ahead and criticize him, but he's just giving it to you straight there; just venting like every fan who is upset because the Ravens have never figured out how to pass the ball.

Think you're upset about it? Lewis is paying the price.

Few backs have been as productive since he entered the NFL; he has thrown himself at defenses, compiled more than 1,400 "touches," gained more than 6,000 yards, set records, won titles.

He also has earned $35.5 million since signing a six-year deal as a rookie, so he isn't starving.

But now it's time for the mondo superstar cash-in that guys like him get, only it ain't happening. The Ravens are balking, which is their prerogative, but Lewis has every right to be upset and worried about it. The window of opportunity closes in a hurry for backs who run as hard as he does. They burn out prematurely, exhaust their value, end up in wheelchairs. You can look it up. Remember Larry Brown? Earl Campbell?

Teams use them as battering rams, make the most of their toughness and discard them. The cycle is startlingly fast. It's usually over after five, six, eight years at the most.

Lewis is in his sixth season, running on two knees and one ankle surgeons have repaired.

So he is bummed. And asking reasonable questions. Like, how is he supposed to gain the yards that would get him a contract when his team doesn't have linemen who can open holes or a quarterback to ease his burden?

Oh, right, he's a pro, getting paid a ton, so he should just shut up and play, right? Just continue to throw himself with a smile and a shrug into holes that aren't there.

Go ahead and indulge that fantasy if you want. Go ahead and believe pro football players are robots who suit up for the love of the game and don't think about their bodies or their money-making potential.

Please. You're allowed to think about all that and they aren't?

Ravens coach Brian Billick didn't even blink when he heard what Lewis said.

"I understand a player's frustration. Jamal is no different than the nine [other] guys who have the potential to be free agents and have the same questions. They're out there working hard. It's part of life in the NFL," Billick said.

Billick added: "I'm not concerned about Jamal's comments. Jamal is working hard. I've seen no evidence to the contrary."

Lewis isn't dogging it. I don't care what he said. He may have vented out of frustration, and he might not be producing like before, but he's a digger from the old school, incapable of not practicing and playing hard.

Hey, if you were running behind the Ravens' line, you'd be worried about your health, too.

Lewis just wants to be paid for having the special ability he has shown, but he obviously isn't going to get a big contract from the Ravens after this season, and he might not get one from any team.

It's just a tough set of circumstances - for the Ravens, for everyone, but most of all for Lewis.

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