Sentiment, NFL don't mix, but J. Lewis deserved better

March 09, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

There's always someone better and younger out there for your favorite NFL team and its fans.

That's what this time of year is all about in America's favorite sport. And that's why it's so easy for a player who has meant as much to a franchise and its fans as Jamal Lewis has meant to the Ravens and Baltimore can just be cut loose and his position given away.

Of course, maybe Lewis didn't mean all that much to people here. In a poll on The Sun's Web site, votes ran close to 75 percent against bringing him back to run the ball for the Ravens next season. It apparently came down to where you put the emphasis in this sentence: "Jamal Lewis once helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl and once ran for 2,000 yards in a season."

You'd think "Super Bowl" and "2,000 yards" would carry some weight. It seems, instead, that what counts is "once." In the past. Long ago - respectively, six seasons and three seasons ago.

That's reality. That's unavoidable. That's business. That's also cruel as hell.

At this point in the evolution of the sport, it's pointless to talk about whether a player of Lewis' magnitude "deserves" for his career with his first and only NFL employer to end that way - to be released because that employer is tired of paying you.

It's the fate of virtually every player, and no one can assume it won't end for him that way, as well. How good were Jerry Rice and Joe Montana? Not good enough to avoid exactly what has befallen Lewis, or willing enough to swallow enough pride and potential salary to come back on their old team's terms.

They couldn't go out on their own terms. They made compromises with themselves and their bodies. They got paid, but they left a lot on plenty of NFL fields in return. Lewis' knees, ankles and general explosiveness were the price of the money he fought to get over the years.

This city's fans, after 13 years in the wilderness and the exquisite joy of returning to the league and then to the top of the mountain, thanked him and said, "Get outta here, someone better and younger is on his way here."

You can't blame the Ravens. They play by the rules everyone else plays by, and they're good at it. Earlier on the same day Lewis made his move to Cleveland, the Ravens jettisoned Edwin Mulitalo. He got hurt, got replaced, got sent away. You can be sentimental or you can contend for Super Bowls every year.

Cruel.

These are the NFL's rules, though, and the players agreed to them, and they can't afford to be misty-eyed, either. Lewis got his money, something close to it, in Cleveland. Yes, it's hilarious that he now helps the team he destroyed every year, particularly in 2003, the 2,000-yard year. Maybe just being around the uniforms - not barreling through them - will recharge the batteries.

They just didn't recharge fast and fully enough for the Ravens, and they ran out of energy way before that for the so-called faithful, who couldn't put memories of 2000 or 2003 aside fast enough when talking about Lewis' decreasing totals. Few backs in the history of the game could even be remotely expected to keep up the pace of those seasons, but Ravens fans couldn't bring themselves to give their former hero even that much of the benefit of the doubt.

The past three seasons, the most popular Raven has been whoever backed up Lewis. Save us, Chester Taylor! Or Musa Smith or Mike Anderson or ... somebody. There were still a lot of No. 31 jerseys seen around town; it might have been an optical illusion that none seemed newly bought.

Now, if those online responses represent the many, McGahee is the new favorite. At some point, someone will have the lightning bolt of recognition - wow, it sure took a lot to replace a guy we couldn't wait to get rid of the past couple of years. Three draft picks and a contract extension.

And the Ravens did go 13-3, after all, with a supposedly jack-legged running back. Lewis couldn't have been that much of an anchor on the offense. Contrary to popular belief, McGahee has huge shoes to fill. At least, he will on the field. It looks for now that the void in the fans' hearts won't be that large.

Fans grow attached to players for various reasons, many of them related to winning. The attachments loosen often for those same reasons. Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to a player is to have success. Sometimes, the best is for this common fate to befall them while they're on top. History will treat Trent Dilfer more kindly around here than it will Lewis because Dilfer got cut loose right after the Super Bowl, Lewis six years later.

Did one mean more to the 2000 season than the other? Does it matter now?

On second thought, the idea that it's pointless talking about what players deserve - not true.

Jamal Lewis deserved better.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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