Ravens are running audition for next year's starting tailback

On the Ravens

November 21, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

As the Ravens begin to prepare for the future, running back Jamal Lewis can see where the road is headed. He's one of those veterans on the outside looking in, standing in line with other possible candidates like right offensive tackle Orlando Brown, left guard Edwin Mulitalo, quarterback Anthony Wright and fullbacks Ovie Mughelli and Alan Ricard.

Lewis said he received news early last week that he was going to split more time with Chester Taylor. When Taylor finished with 19 carries for 59 yards yesterday in the Ravens' 16-13, overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Lewis had only 13 carries for 28 yards, Lewis wasn't surprised, but still disappointed.

"I'm not a fool," Lewis said minutes after the game.

Neither are the Ravens.

Inserting Taylor over Lewis will have some impact on the Ravens' offense for the remainder of the season, but it won't be significant, because there need to be other changes. But the Ravens needed to make this move. Actually, they had to make this move.

They need to find out if Taylor can be an every-down back. They need to know if Taylor can survive games where he carries the ball 25 to 30 times against a team such as Pittsburgh and then has to pull the same load against a team like Cincinnati the next week.

Thus far, we know Taylor, in his fourth season, is productive and has potential. He has good hands as a pass catcher, and always seems to get positive yards because of a good body lean. He has the ability to make tacklers miss, but the jury is out on whether his 213-pound body can take the pounding, not only game after game, but also quarter after quarter.

Fans and media have been clamoring for Taylor for weeks, but coach Brian Billick has been reluctant to play him until he relented yesterday. Lewis started the game, but hit the bench by the second quarter.

With the playoffs out of the picture, it's out with the old, in with the new.

"I've never ever had to forgo a role," said Lewis. "If they want me to carry the ball 14 or 15 times a game, if that's the role they give me, that's all I got. It's a fight I can't win. All I can do is control my own destiny. Everything happens for a reason."

Lewis had his chances. Certainly, Billick gave him every opportunity to succeed, starting him the first nine games. He probably stuck with him too long. But Lewis hasn't returned to the form he showed in 2003, when he rushed for 2,066 yards on 387 carries. He stutter-steps too much. He isn't decisive. In the past, he made holes when there weren't any. Now, with this poor offensive line, he's done just about as soon as he's getting the handoff.

Taylor has a bit more spark. He's finding daylight on those cutback runs that Lewis can't see. He's carrying two or three tacklers on his back for yards after first contact much like Lewis used to do. There are a couple of reasons why the old Lewis hasn't resurfaced, but he has acknowledged he isn't playing with the same intensity because the Ravens reneged on a new contract extension they had promised before the season started.

Those words made him Public Enemy No. 1 among a lot of Ravens fans. When Lewis re-entered the game yesterday after his second-quarter fumble, he was booed.

"I tried to slide off the hole twice and got hit," said Lewis. "Those things happen. I gave them [the coaches] ammunition to pull me out and hold me back. It was my fault, but there was nothing I could do about it. I came into the game and thought I was running good at the beginning. But all along, I knew what was going to happen to me, and I see what is going to happen."

"There are no playoff hopes, so we have moved into the evaluation process," Lewis said.

It's sad, but just another day of business in the NFL. Since coming to the Ravens as the No. 1 draft pick in 2000, Lewis and middle linebacker Ray Lewis symbolized the Ravens. Both were tough and intense competitors. Teammates on both sides of the ball fueled off hits by the Lewises. There was nothing more devastating, more demoralizing than Jamal Lewis turning the corner at full tilt and putting fear into the eyes of a defensive back.

The Ravens were a power-I formation offense with a speedy, power back. Times, though, have changed. True West Coast offenses often don't use fullbacks, which was a point of contention early in the season. With Jim Fassel aboard as the new offensive coordinator, the Ravens wanted to use H-backs instead of fullbacks. The current Ravens offense is actually geared more toward Taylor.

The signs are here now that Lewis won't return next season. Both he and Taylor are free agents, and the Ravens will pay only one. It's going to be hard to evaluate both in the remaining time, especially with this offense.

The Ravens can't score. They scored one touchdown in the second quarter yesterday, and it was like a national holiday. They should close schools, banks and post offices. There should be a parade in downtown Baltimore. But the Ravens have a real decision to make.

Is it Taylor or is it Lewis?

The only way they can find out is to keep playing Taylor more in the final six games.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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