Is J. Lewis' run over?

Ravens tell running back he won't be franchised


The Ravens decided not to place the franchise tag on Jamal Lewis yesterday, a move that could signal the departure of the franchise's all-time leading rusher and a new direction for the team's running game.

Lewis will become an unrestricted free agent March 3, joining a loaded running back market that includes Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, DeShaun Foster and Ahman Green.

General manager Ozzie Newsome personally called Lewis to say the Ravens still will be "involved" in the negotiating process during free agency, but the former All-Pro thinks otherwise.

"My gut feeling is I won't be back," Lewis told The Sun. "They didn't negotiate with me [throughout the season], so why would they negotiate with me now?"

The biggest factor in the team's decision not to franchise Lewis (which would have required a one-year, $6 million tender) was the other options available to the Ravens during the next few months.

The Ravens likely won't pursue high-profile backs, such as Alexander and James, considering their modest cap room (projected between $7 million and $8 million), and their other holes on the roster (quarterback, defensive line, linebacker and safety).

Their probable course of action is to let Lewis and backup Chester Taylor test the free-agent market and try to re-sign one of them if they don't receive the value they're seeking.

If the Ravens fail to retain Lewis or Taylor, they likely would target the draft. Southern California's LenDale White or Memphis' DeAngelo Williams - who are considered among the top three college running backs - should be available when the Ravens use the 13th overall pick.

As insurance to taking a rookie running back, the Ravens would look to sign a second-tier veteran at a reasonable cost. The team is also confident that former third-round pick Musa Smith is over his injury-riddled past.

The Ravens' only response to not using the franchise tag came in a team-issued statement.

"We will still consider the possibility of talking to Jamal about a long-term contract," Newsome said.

Lewis, 26, is not optimistic because of nonexistent talks during the past year. His agent, Mitch Frankel, sent a proposal to the Ravens at the start of training camp in August and has never received a counteroffer from the team.

The Ravens have not begun negotiations with Taylor either. Lewis said he is "confused" about what direction the Ravens are headed.

"I thought if they weren't talking to me, they would be talking to Chester Taylor, and then I find out that they're not," he said. "Maybe they are rebuilding. Maybe they're trying to bring in young talent. I have a feeling there are going to be a few more players leaving, but who knows what they're trying to accomplish?"

Lewis, selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft, quickly became one of the league's most feared running backs, using his size to bowl over tacklers and his speed to run away from them.

He carried the Ravens' offense in 2003, when he rushed for 2,066 yards (second most in NFL history) and received the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year award.

Injuries and federal drug charges led to Lewis' production declining the past two years. He managed a career-low 906 yards last season after spending four months in federal prison as part of a plea bargain.

Lewis envisions a "fresh start" in free agency, saying he would be interested in playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots or division rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

"[Steelers coach] Bill Cowher has always complimented me whenever we played them," Lewis said. "Any team that wants a running back to carry 25 to 30 times a game, I'm here. I'm a horse. They just need to run me."

Lewis denied there is any bitterness with the Ravens - whom he once said promised a long-term deal a year ago - but lamented the lack of a passing game in his time here.

In five seasons with Lewis as the featured back, the Ravens ranked in the top half of the NFL in rushing four times, including three top-10 finishes. The passing game, meanwhile, ranked 22nd or lower all but one season.

"When teams prepared for our offense, everything came after keying off Jamal Lewis," he said. "As long as I was there, that was always going to be the case."

More than any previous year, Lewis caused some friction last season by complaining about a lack of carries and acknowledged there was a lack of communication with coach Brian Billick.

"I don't know what to say about it. I guess the chemistry just didn't mesh," Lewis said. "We really didn't bump heads, but I've always played for coaches who shoot the truth. ... Other coaches handled me as a partner, but here I was splitting time with Chester. The year before they're running me 25 to 30 times a game with a bad ankle and we're trying to get into the playoffs. This year, I'm carrying it only 10 to 15 times on a 6-10 team. It doesn't make a lot of sense, huh?"

If Lewis has played his last game for the Ravens, he said he leaves with special memories.

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