It's careful speed ahead

J. Lewis won't lie down, but health concerns him


Mired in the worst slump of his career, Jamal Lewis is carrying more than a football in games these days.

The former All-Pro running back admitted yesterday that he is feeling burdened by pending free agency, questioning his future with the Ravens and venting his frustration for being blamed for the team's offensive struggles.

Lewis, who is averaging 54.3 yards a game and 2.9 yards a carry, even acknowledged his concern about getting seriously injured, which could ruin his chances of signing a blockbuster deal next year.

"I'm not the type that's going to lay down. At the same time, it's going to be in the back of your mind," Lewis said. "You want to go out and you want to play hard. [But] you want to be careful for your own health because this is the last year on my deal."

His punishing running style - one in which he runs over tacklers - made him the NFL's most feared running back in 2003, when he rushed for 2,066 yards (the second-highest total in league history).

Reached after practice, coach Brian Billick said Lewis' comments don't worry him because he has yet to see him scale back his effort to avoid injury.

"I think every player worries about injury, but you can't play the game that way," Billick said. "[Being productive will garner] the next contract. Jamal is working hard, and I've seen no evidence to the contrary. Is he concerned about his contract and future? Absolutely."

Billick, however, told Pittsburgh reporters yesterday that there has been some change in Lewis, saying, "Jamal has to run a little bit more physical and get back to the style of running that he is used to."

Lewis, who ranks 27th in the NFL in rushing, hasn't broken a run longer than 13 yards since the season opener. His six games without a 100-yard game is the longest drought of his career.

This rut might be the reason Billick left open the possibility that backup Chester Taylor, whose 6-yard rushing average more than doubles Lewis', could receive more carries Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In previous weeks, Billick had been adamant about getting Lewis more involved. But Taylor, who is also a free agent at the end of the season, has been the Ravens' most effective runner all season, gaining 103 fewer yards than Lewis on 76 fewer carries.

"We're going to use whatever combination we have to get the job done," Billick said. "Heck, I'll go carry the ball if I thought it would make a difference."

Lewis, 26, is earning $3.5 million in the last year of his 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 said he promised Lewis a new contract after Lewis' prolific 2003 season, but negotiations came to a halt when Lewis was indicted on federal drug charges in February 2004.

During training camp, 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' agent, Mitch Frankel, yesterday, the Ravens have not entered into talks.

"I must admit that at the beginning of the season, I felt the organization did turn against me," Lewis said.

When news circulated about him feeling betrayed, Lewis wanted to clarify his statement last night.

"When I had taken the plea bargain, I might have taken what was said to me the wrong way," he said. "It might have been a miscommunication."

Lewis was more combative at suggestions that he is the reason the Ravens are averaging an NFL-low 11.5 points.

Much of his anger stems from the fact that he has been the Ravens' only reliable offensive weapon when the team annually labored to score. In his previous four seasons, he was the centerpiece of the offense, averaging 96 yards a game.

"I gave and gave and gave over the last five years," Lewis 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 torn down. We have to get it together.

"You do get frustrated and get tired from it. The running game is what we've depended on in the past and that's what always worked. Right now, it's not clicking. So, who's to blame? The 2,000-yard rusher. That's who to blame," he said. "I'll take that. I don't care. Say it's me or whatever."

Lingering effects from offseason ankle surgery have not played a part in his slow start, Lewis said.

"It's not really holding me back," he said. "It's just getting that explosion to get that hole and get downfield. I went and evaluated myself watching film from 2003 and 2004 to watching film from 2005 and see if I'm doing anything wrong. I just don't see it.

"Everybody has to play their part. It's not one person."

Billick said Lewis' contract status shouldn't serve as a major distraction because the Ravens have reassured him of his future with the team.

There has been speculation that the Ravens will use the franchise tag on Lewis, keeping him off the free-agent market.

"He knows he's going to be here," Billick said.

But Lewis said he has received no guarantee that he's in the Ravens' plans beyond this season.

"It doesn't get into your passion for the game and it doesn't get into your preparation for the game," Lewis said. "But it does sink in the back of your mind when you're out there busting your tail for this organization, that next year, who knows where you might be?"

Ravens@Steelers Monday, 9 p.m., chs. 2, 7, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Steelers by 10

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