On Monday, a dinosaur walked inside the Under Armour Performance Center and was introduced as the guest of honor at a 3:30 p.m. news conference. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome spoke of the first time he had spotted it, which seems like eons ago with the futuristic pass attacks of this age blurring memories of when the Ravens outmuscled the NFL while winning Super Bowl XXXV back in 2001 A.D. Then the dinosaur talked, reminisced and marveled that Ray Lewis, four years his senior, was somehow still fighting off extinction today.
Jamal Lewis is quick to admit that running backs like him are rarely found on this football landscape. The true workhorse, 300-carry running backs are, in his words, “ancient dinosaurs” in today’s pass-happy NFL. That’s what Lewis told me two months ago when I interviewed him about Ravens running back Ray Rice, and those words ring loudly around Baltimore after Sunday’s 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rice, who is regarded as one of the top three players at his position, was a secondary option in the loss. After getting just 10 carries in the Week 1 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Rice received 16 carries during Sunday’s game and wasn’t handed the ball once as the Eagles erased a 10-point lead and turned the tide in their favor in the first nine and a half minutes of the third quarter. Times have certainly changed, because right or wrong, a decade ago the Ravens would have kicked up dust with the dinosaur until time or the lead had expired.
The Ravens handed off to Lewis more than 20 times a game in his six seasons here and called his number more than 24 times a game during his franchise record-setting 2003 season. He thumped his way to 2,066 rushing yards that year and had four other 1,000-yard seasons. Lewis averaged 4.2 yards per carry in nine NFL seasons -- he played his three final seasons with the Cleveland Browns -- and he is still running with a handful of single-season and all-time Ravens records. So naturally, Lewis will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor next Thursday night.
As he put it, his style fit with those Ravens perfectly.
“I always felt that I was a defensive player playing on offense,” said Lewis, who feels “pretty good,” but wouldn’t discuss his past concussions due to a pending lawsuit. “So, I think that’s why I always ended up hanging around linebackers or the defensive side of the ball, because I wasn’t the finesse type of guy.”
And that’s why he believes that if he had been born a decade later, he might not fit in today’s game. His father raised him to be a hitter, and he sought out contact in high school and college, too. At Tennessee, all he did was break tackles, something that caught the eye of Newsome as he watched Lewis run over his alma mater, Alabama, in a Tennessee win before the Ravens drafted him fifth overall in 2000. Now the NFL has fallen in love with passing the football, and if a great runner isn’t a receiving threat, too, he will often find himself watching from the sideline. Only two running backs had 300 carries in the 2011 season. Meanwhile, the NFL as a whole set all-time highs in pass attempts (17,411) and gross passing yards (125,336), according to ESPN.
“That’s how football is. It evolves over time, and right now, it’s about putting up a lot of points on the board. You usually don’t get that out of the running game,” Lewis said. “But, now, as far as the running back, I don’t know if I would make it right now. I don’t think there are enough carries being given to one running back. You don’t find too many featured running backs in the league like you did in the past. Now, it’s more of a by-committee type of thing. Mainly, I think, that’s to keep guys fresh and to keep guys from getting injured and things of that nature. But, it has evolved, and you see a lot of passing, you see a lot of points going up on the board.”
Now teams like the Ravens must find creative ways to keep modern feature backs involved in their offense. According to Football Outsiders, Rice is one of five running backs in NFL history with more than 200 carries and 60 catches in three straight seasons. (Marcus Allen, Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes, a former teammate of Lewis, are the others). Rice, now in his fifth season, is second behind Lewis on the team’s all-time rushing list -- 7,801 yards for Lewis, 4,544 for Rice -- and is closing fast, giving Lewis the familiar feeling of looking over his shoulder.
“If he keeps going, those numbers are going to keep on climbing,” said Lewis, who retired in 2009 and who turned 33 last month.
But even then, Lewis will not be forgotten in Baltimore football lore. Given the way running backs are used today, there may never be another 2,000-yard rusher in Ravens history, especially if Rice gets 16 carries a game. And the Ravens would not have won the Super Bowl, Newsome admits, if the G.M. hadn’t become enamored with a physical, hard-hitting and tireless dinosaur eons ago.