To avoid losing grip on Lewis, handle contract talks with care

March 01, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

This little operation the Ravens have to execute with Jamal Lewis, they're going to have to execute very cautiously, very gingerly, almost delicately.

Kind of the way Jamal has run the ball the past couple of years. Ouch! Way out of line. But c'mon, don't act like you didn't think that even before you read it.

Give the Ravens credit - they are, by every indication, trying not to make this a coldblooded, cold-hearted farewell to one of the best players in franchise history. They're trying to keep him, but just at a price they can live with. They believe he can still help them, but knew he couldn't help them at that salary cap number.

They know the punch packed by their announcement yesterday afternoon. It was all over every Web site and highlighted on the sports networks: Ravens cut Jamal Lewis. But they made a point not to burn such a significant bridge to him and to the fans who have nostalgic feelings about what kind of player he used to be and about the kind he probably should have been in the second half of the playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts in January.

Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick and the Ravens' brain trust say they want Lewis back. The trick is to get him back and keep him here happy, with a substantial pay cut and the unavoidable feeling that after the punishment he absorbed for the organization's benefit, it has tried to shunt him aside each of the past two offseasons.

It's business as usual in the NFL during the most soul-deadening stretch of its calendar. No wonder the league started hyping the scouting combine so much the past couple of years, televising it and steering all coverage toward it. Better that than to get its fan base engaged in which of its favorite players are getting the boot for salary cap purposes every spring.

Even if the Ravens work something out with Lewis to return next season, it can't feel great to know that in order to stay in your only NFL home, you have to get shoved out the door and then let back in at a price they like.

Joining Lewis on the NFL's temporary (or not) unemployment line yesterday were Houston Texans wide receiver Eric Moulds, wrapping up the 11th season of a pretty accomplished career by getting cut by one of the league's worst teams, and linebacker Brian Simmons, who had played his entire nine-year career with the long-pathetic, still-troubled Cincinnati Bengals.

Unlike them, Lewis has a ring, and not a coattail ring, either. He also has an NFL record (the 295-yard game) and another notable line in the record book (second-best rushing season ever, 2,066 yards). What else does he have, at the tender age of 27? More than 1,800 carries in six seasons. At least three major surgeries. A stretch in federal prison, an NFL suspension. Less of a snap-to-snap burst than he used to have.

Then again, you can't exactly say that a better back would have made the Ravens better. They were 13-3, after all, and the way he moved the chains and had the occasional flashback to the old days helped get them there. Plus, despite the diminished statistics and increased criticism, Lewis and everyone else acknowledge that he didn't touch the ball nearly enough in the second half of the playoff game against the Colts.

Knock his stats all you want, but finding a back who's guaranteed to duplicate them next season, to be the difference between last year and this, is not as easy as some make it sound. Maybe that back is already on the roster, maybe he's out there in the draft or free agency. The odds are better, as irritating as it seems sometimes, that it's Lewis.

These are somewhat treacherous times for this organization, something that wouldn't seem obvious if only the new four-year contract given to Billick were considered. There must be great reason for optimism to reward a coach so lavishly just a year after the public ultimatum laid before him by the owner. They're looking down the road, though, and they see a future that doesn't end that soon. They see a window open, not closed or closing.

The future won't include Adalius Thomas, who walks as an unrestricted free agent tomorrow. It probably doesn't include right tackle Tony Pashos. Possibly not Lewis and his 7,801 career regular-season yards.

You've got to have a lot of faith in the coaches and front office to take all of that and make it all work. You have to truly believe that whoever replaces Thomas, Pashos, possibly Lewis and certainly a few others will not only maintain, but also surpass. The Ravens believe that; otherwise, Thomas' status and Lewis' and Billick's would all be different today. If they believed this was their last chance to win, if they believed the window was closing, the Ravens wouldn't have done what they've done this offseason.

The bar is set above last season's results. No one will be happy with another 13-3 year and another playoff one-and-done, nor with four more after that.

With all that, though, they do have a chance to keep Jamal Lewis in a Ravens uniform and give him a chance to play a role in the next run to a Super Bowl.

It just won't be easy. It'll be cautious, ginger, delicate ... stop. Just stop. That's not funny.

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