Jamal Lewis, the Ravens' hope of the future, is about to become the running back of the present.
Coach Brian Billick said yesterday that Lewis will reverse roles with Priest Holmes, a four-year veteran who has started 19 games for the Ravens, as the featured runner.
The move comes after Lewis broke three plays of 16 yards or longer, including one dazzling 45-yard run, in Sunday night's 19-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The fifth pick in this year's draft, Lewis was electric in his first NFL start.
"The thing he gives you is the potential for the big play," Billick said. "But you can also see on a couple of plays where there wasn't a lot going on in there, he pushed and shoved and used his weight and made a nice 2-yard gain, as opposed to no gain at all.
"So he brings that element as well - the toughness - plus the explosiveness, and we've got to continue to build on that."
Lewis, 5 feet 11 and 231 pounds, combines breakaway speed with raw power and soft hands. He gained 76 yards on only nine carries against the Dolphins, caught two passes for 22 more yards, and generated a total of four first downs in 11 touches.
Yesterday, Billick admitted that had he to do it over, he would have given the ball to Lewis when the Ravens marched to first-and-goal at the Miami 1-yard line in the third quarter, trailing 13-0. Lewis had already punched out 20 yards on three carries in the team's opening drive of the second half.
"We would like to have done that," Billick said.
Instead, the Ravens called for a play-action pass on first down, and Tony Banks was sacked by safety Brian Walker on a corner blitz for an 8-yard loss. When Banks was sacked on third down, the Ravens were forced to take a 27-yard Matt Stover field goal.
"They played it beautifully, brought the corner off the edge," Billick said. "In hindsight now, yes, I wish we'd run the ball. ... They did a nice job playing the play-fake."
Said Miami defensive end Trace Armstrong: "We expected them to run the ball when they were on the goal line, but they have great tight ends and decided to do something different. Luckily, it worked out for us."
Billick said the Ravens have a progression of goal-line plays in the play-calling process, and elected to go for the play-action pass on first down.
"I don't have that book that says run the first play, throw the second play, run the third," he said. "It is what it is. You make your call, you think they're going to do something a certain way ... and it didn't work out the way we hoped it would."
The Ravens took Lewis with the fifth pick in this year's draft with the expectation he would move into the starting job this season. A dislocated left elbow in the team's first preseason scrimmage set back Lewis. Holmes, who holds the team's career, season and single-game rushing records, accepted his new role with grace and without rancor. He said in the interest of team goals, he was supportive of the decision.
"For my talent and the things I'm able to do, none of those things are diminished by moving Jamal into the starting role," said Holmes, 26. "Those things are minor things to the key of life. As far as my work ethic, that hasn't changed. As far as my ability, my durability, the things that I can add, those things don't change.
"The things I have done for this club, they're set in stone. ... In the long run, we still have 13 more games; so many things can happen."
Billick indicated he will use Holmes in certain personnel groupings to utilize his talent and to give Lewis a breather. Holmes had the seventh 100-yard rushing game of his NFL career on opening day when he gained 119 yards against Pittsburgh. He had 10 carries for 54 yards against Jacksonville, and six for 25 against Miami.
He was not upset, he said, because he didn't feel the starting job was ever really his this year.
"So for me to be upset, or for me to be feeling like I had something taken from me, that hasn't been the case because it was never given to me," Holmes said. "We can look at that by the contract."
Holmes signed a one-year contract for $470,000 this season as a restricted free agent, which makes him an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Billick has an appreciation for what Holmes has done, just as he has an appreciation for what he believes Lewis can do.
"He did some real nice things in [pass] protection," Billick said of Lewis. "He did a couple technique things that, for lack of experience, he's got to improve on. But for the most part, he went to the right place and did the right thing protection-wise, and clearly you saw the element he gives you, the explosiveness, and that's the thing."