J. Lewis, Taylor: Only one will be back for long run

Ravens have six games to determine future

November 22, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

Despite the last-place Ravens being out of the playoff hunt, there is a race to watch in the final six games of their season.

In the afterglow of Sunday's 16-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, coach Brian Billick said the Ravens will continue to split the playing time at running back between starter Jamal Lewis and backup Chester Taylor.

A decision needs to be made by the end of the season whether the Ravens will re-sign either Lewis or Taylor, both of whom are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, as the team's featured back next season.

Although a league source said team officials are inclined at this point to use the franchise tag on Lewis and let Taylor go elsewhere, the move to increase Taylor's carries indicates the Ravens are willing to change their minds.

"That's not an issue right now," Billick said. "We have two good backs, and we're going to use both backs because right now that seems to be the most productive angle for us. The rest of it will take care of itself."

Sunday marked the first game this season in which the Ravens (3-7) gave more carries to Taylor than Lewis.

Like he's done all season, Taylor outperformed Lewis, providing a spark with 59 yards on 19 carries. Lewis received only three carries after halftime and finished with 28 yards on 13 attempts.

Before this season, it would have been difficult to imagine the Ravens having to fret over choosing between Lewis and Taylor.

Lewis had gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his previous four seasons, including the second-most prolific season in NFL history two years ago. Taylor has been a career backup, rushing for a total of 1,112 yards in his first three seasons in the league.

But opinions have changed this season. Taylor is the one cutting back and breaking tackles, and Lewis is struggling to break the line of scrimmage.

In his news conference yesterday, Billick expressed an equal amount of confidence in both running backs, saying the hotter player will receive more carries that game.

"I have no doubt that Chester Taylor can be an every-down back," Billick said. "That is not part of my thought process right now. I don't need to know any more about Chester Taylor to know that he is an outstanding back and can be a lead back for a team. I also know Jamal Lewis has been and will be a great lead back for any team regardless of what he's going through right now."

The lack of productivity from Lewis is one of the season's biggest mysteries.

In his first four seasons, he averaged 96 yards a game. In 10 games this season, he has averaged 50.6 yards.

Lewis is managing 2.9 yards a carry - compared to Taylor's 4.5-yard average - and hasn't broken a run longer than 14 yards the past nine games.

He leads all running backs with four lost fumbles, but none was more unsettling than the one he coughed up in the second quarter Sunday. As Lewis walked off the field, the hometown crowd booed the longtime offensive workhorse.

"I wish I could put my finger on it," Billick said. "I believe he's healthy. He's running hard. He's practicing hard. There's plenty of want there. Why we haven't gotten that break-a-tackle, step aside and get the big run, I'm sure he's scratching his head as much as we are."

There are plenty of reasons to consider.

Lewis spent four months in a federal prison camp after a guilty plea to using a cell phone to set up a drug buy in 2000. He had surgery on his ankle in February, which caused him to miss most of the preseason.

And he recently admitted that he is concerned about getting injured when he runs because it could hurt his chances of signing a big free-agent deal.

"All the things we've commented on before - the offseason, the rehab, the training camp, the whole nine yards - yeah, they are factors," Billick said.

History says the Ravens favor staying with Lewis.

In 2000, the Ravens drafted Lewis with the fifth overall pick and let Priest Holmes leave after the season. Team officials believed Holmes, a smaller back than Lewis, didn't have the size to withstand the beating of a 16-game season.

Now, the Ravens find themselves in a similar situation.

Taylor has shown flashes, but he has never started more than back-to-back games. As the third-down back this season, he has proved to be more versatile than Lewis, breaking two of the team's three runs by running backs of more than 20 yards and ranking third with 30 catches.

By early January, the Ravens must determine whether they will stick with Lewis or change directions with Taylor.

"We can practice, we can have training camp, we can have preseason games, and that's all well and good. But the only real valid evaluation you can draw from any player comes in a game," Billick said. "We have six more opportunities to get some great evaluation done."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Ravens@Bengals Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 13, 1300 AM, 102.7 FM Line: Bengals by 9

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