Ravens are put in better shape if J. Lewis can regain his form

On the Ravens

August 01, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

There was that uh-oh, here-we-go-again feeling at Ravens training camp early yesterday morning. Running back Jamal Lewis was expected to practice, but came out in his practice jersey and shorts. He did a few drills with other injured players, and then went back inside.

For a while, your mind shot back to last year. Was the ankle injured again? Was Lewis making another statement by withholding himself from practice, like he did in games last season during a contract dispute? How could the scenario have changed from just a few weeks ago when he was participating in voluntary minicamps? There was no need for concern. By the afternoon, Lewis was practicing with the rest of the team in the second session.

"I'm feeling good," Lewis said of the hip flexor injury he suffered in a workout two weeks before training camp. "I was running sprints, and the last one I opened it up and kind of strained the hip flexor. It didn't pull, it didn't tear, that's a good thing.

"I tried to rest it a little bit to get it back," he said. "I kind of knew I was going to be a little behind coming into training camp. It's something minor, but at the same time we don't want to get out here running and pull it, and then be out five weeks or so. It's really more precautionary."

You can believe Lewis. He's always been straightforward, honest and at times brutally blunt.

His body seems well-prepared for the season. According to two team officials, Lewis reported to training camp at 247 pounds, which puts him close to or at his playing weight. His body fat is about 8 percent.

The Ravens didn't have to worry about him working out during the offseason because he was training in Atlanta.

The scenario is different from a year ago when Lewis was incarcerated for four months leading up to training camp. He looked good last August, but the limp from offseason ankle surgery was clearly noticeable.

Any traces of the limp are gone.

"My ankle was a little sore last year," Lewis said. "But like I said, I had a better offseason than a year ago because I was able to get a good four or five months of full training to prepare for this 16- to 20-week stretch.

"After last season, I took a week or two off before I started training again," said Lewis, who is entering his seventh season. "I didn't carry the ball that much, so I was fresh. I don't come into this season thinking I have to prove anything to anybody except myself. My head is totally clear."

A year ago, Lewis came into training camp thinking he would get a contract extension before the regular season. When the two sides failed to work out an agreement, Lewis pouted. And then during the regular season, he complained about having to share the time with backup Chester Taylor.

But in the opening weeks of free agency, the Ravens gave Lewis a three-year contract worth $26 million, including a $5 million signing bonus. The Ravens also signed former Denver Broncos running back Mike Anderson a day before Lewis, but Lewis has no complaints. He got paid, and is still No. 1 on the depth chart. He wasn't happy that close friend and fullback Alan Ricard got cut recently, but Lewis got over that, too.

Money cures a lot of problems.

Now, it's all about regaining the form that made Lewis one of the best backs. He showed glimpses of it last year, especially at the end of the season. The Lewis that started the 2005 season was indecisive and slow turning the corner.

The old Lewis stutter-stepped, but still had enough acceleration to pull away from defenders. The old Lewis could get to the perimeter with his shoulders square, which put fear in the eyes of linebackers and defensive backs. The 2005 version of Lewis gained 906 yards rushing on 269 carries. The tough, explosive Lewis gained 2,066 yards on 387 carries in 2003.

"If I have to live up to the expectations I put in place, then it means I just have to work hard in the offseason to go out and accomplish the same things and reach that goal again," Lewis said. "My goal is to do better than I did last season. Not just myself, but to help this team do better than it did last season because we didn't do well as a whole. We made some good moves in the offseason, and I think we're going to have a better, more balanced offense."

There weren't any great moves, just one good one. With veteran quarterback Steve McNair on the roster, the Ravens will see less seven-, eight- and nine-man fronts early in the season. Opposing teams have to honor McNair's experience, athleticism and arm strength.

There are a lot of ifs here, but this is a season of ifs. We don't know if middle linebacker Ray Lewis can fully recover from hamstring and groin injuries or if defensive end Trevor Pryce has a lot of playing time left. There are questions about finding a starting safety, building a competent offensive line and keeping McNair healthy.

And then there is Jamal Lewis. Is he the running back of old, or just an old running back?

"I have to prove to myself again what Ozzie Newsome and Brian Billick already know, that I'm still a great running back," Lewis said.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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