Something To Prove

Jamal Lewis aims to show the NFL he's still a force out of the backfield

AFC North Preview: Cleveland

August 19, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

Berea, Ohio -- There didn't seem to be much of a hole for Jamal Lewis to squeeze through. Studying his blockers, Lewis cut quickly to his right, through a blur of orange helmets, and suddenly found himself in the clear.

It was only training camp, and only the first week of August, but a player whose career in Baltimore had leveled off the past two seasons has found himself rejuvenated with a new team in a new city.

Lewis, the leading rusher in the history of the Ravens, is a Cleveland Brown.

His story drips with irony, given the fractious history of the two franchises, as well as the fact that it was only four years ago that Lewis broke the NFL's single-game rushing record with 295 punishing yards against the Browns.

"I think he's definitely a good running back, but now he`s a good running back and he's got a chip on his shoulder, and that's going to make him even better," said Browns cornerback Gary Baxter, who played four seasons in Baltimore with Lewis.

Said linebacker Andra Davis, "I think he wanted to prove not only to the organization but to himself that he has it in him, that he's still one of the best backs in this league. I know we're going to cater to him; this offense fits his style. He's going to have the opportunity to show the world."

Lewis, who turns 28 next week, signed a one-year contract reportedly worth $3.5 million that can bring him as much as $5 million if he reaches all of his incentives. He reported to camp last month at 238 pounds, about 12 pounds lighter than he played with the Ravens.

"I've got a fresh start, I'm happy, it's fun again," Lewis said after a recent practice at the team's facility in the Cleveland suburbs. "That's what it's all about. I've got a bunch of good guys in here that are ready to win, that are young and talented, and it's just all about team here.

"That's where the spring in my step comes from ."

But Lewis is aware doubters remain, and says he believes most of the skepticism emanates from Baltimore.

"I think these guys, from the coaches on down, they know what I can do, don't feed into the whole `What does he have left in the tank' story. Whatever Baltimore put out there, they didn't buy into that," Lewis said of the Browns. "They know what they were looking for to establish their running game, what they had been missing, and I fit what they're trying to do."

Lewis looks at what happened last season, when he rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns on 314 carries while playing with painful bone spurs in his left ankle that required injections during the season and surgery after it.

His dissatisfaction in Baltimore goes back to the 2005 season, when he had career lows for yardage (906) and yards per carry (3.4). While his critics say Lewis began to show the wear of an NFL running back going into his eighth season, Lewis points to the Ravens offense.

"The scheme changed, and we went to more of trying to use the tight ends in the backfield blocking, getting more to a passing game and less of a running game, which we were known for," said Lewis, who was unhappy when tight end Darnell Dinkins, now with the Browns, was not resigned by the Ravens after spending 2004 and 2005 in Baltimore. "That's when I kind of just lost it; it just wasn't fun.

"All the complaining about the running game, but there were no moves to improve the running game. That's not where their focus was. I was just ready to go. It was time for me to go because I no longer fit their scheme."

His connection to Cleveland came through Phil Savage, who was the director of college scouting for the Ravens when Lewis was drafted in 2000. Savage, now in his third season as vice president and general manager of the Browns, knew he needed to upgrade at running back.

"He's bigger, faster and stronger than what we had at that position before," Savage said. "No knock on Reuben Droughns, but we feel Jamal will be more productive. Deep inside, he wants to prove himself, and we feel that a hungry Jamal is a good Jamal."

In the past 20 years, only one Cleveland running back had gained more than 1,000 yards in a season. Droughns, who led the Browns with 1,232 yards on 309 attempts in 2005 before falling off to 758 yards on 220 carries last season, was traded to the New York Giants two days after Lewis signed with Cleveland.

One more thing: In 12 career games against the Browns, Lewis averaged nearly 130 yards, going over 100 yards six times, over 150 four times and over 200 twice.

"I think Phil Savage is a smart guy; he knows what he's doing," Lewis said. "What better back to get than somebody who's in your division and knows Pittsburgh, knows Cincinnati, played against these guys, had success against these guys and also came from a team that I know their defense?"

Said Davis, "He was a thorn in our side for years. Now he'll be a thorn in somebody else's side."

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