Ja. Lewis takes first steps down the long road back


Last year, Jamal Lewis carried the weight of the Ravens' offense to the Super Bowl.

These days, the star running back finds himself challenged to lift 10 pounds with his surgically repaired left leg.

Lewis is in the early stages of rehabilitating a knee injury that abruptly ended his season on Aug. 8 and set up a difficult yet familiar journey back.

The Ravens expect him to return next season, and Lewis promises it. But the general consensus around the league is that players don't fully reach their previous form until the second season after a knee ligament tear.

Although Lewis has heard the reasons for this popular theory, he intends to shatter them.

"I feel like I'm the best back in the NFL today," Lewis said. "When I come back next year, I'll be able to prove that."

After undergoing successful reconstructive surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Sept. 5, Lewis was off his crutches five weeks later. He nearly has full range of motion back in the leg, keeping it loose by riding the stationary bike and building up his muscles with light lifting.

Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf expects Lewis to be able to do light running by the end of the year and possibly make an appearance in the team's April minicamp. But Lewis probably won't be making those hard plants and cuts until the June minicamp.

Lewis' biggest test remains training camp in August, when he will take his first hit in a year. At that point, the main hurdle won't be the health of his knee, but how fast his intensity and football skills return.

"I would anticipate him playing in the exhibition season," Tessendorf said. "When he will play in that exhibition, I don't know. We have to see where he is. But I think he has a high percentage chance to play for the 2002 season."

The Ravens, however, realize the likelihood that Lewis may not immediately return to the same high level of 2000, when he broke the team's single-season record with 1,364 yards rushing.

"What we've seen with some of our history is that it takes two years to get completely back to where they were before," said Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of football operations. "But that doesn't mean a guy is not effective his first year back."

This trail to recovery is not a new one for Lewis.

In 1998, his sophomore year at the University of Tennessee ended when he tore a different ligament in his other knee. One year after surgery, Lewis was back for his junior year, when he rushed for 816 yards - which was about 500 yards less than the total in his freshman year.

But Lewis says it only took two minutes in his first game back in 1999 to regain his old form.

"I was comfortable," he said. "I knew I was faster than I was before, stronger than I was before and more powerful than I was before. I just waited until the first game to actually put it to the test and take that first hit. That's all I needed and after that, I was back in my groove and back at 100 percent."

Is there any chance that he won't come back completely next year?

"That doesn't cross my mind because I'm living off this first one," said Lewis, 22, the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft. "After the first one, I came back healthy and ready to run. It was strong. I feel like I have good work ethic. I'm going to go about it getting back to its full potential."

Tessendorf indicated the philosophy of this being a two-year injury is really on a case-by-case basis, with Lewis having a head start on the average player. He's already been through a similar rehabilitation process, and his injury occurred early enough to allow him a full year of recovery.

The biggest factor in changing his current timetable is the type of setback that will occur.

"If there are small ones, it's no problem," Tessendorf said. "If it's a major one, if we get some scar tissue in there and some tendinitis, then that can cause problems."

That's why the Ravens have to consider their backup plans.

Their current backfield consists of veteran Terry Allen, 33, who is on a one-year deal; Jason Brookins, 25, who has long-term potential; and Moe Williams, 27, a late pickup from the waiver wire.

"Certainly, we'll want to go into next season with Jamal with what we think is adequate depth," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We may have that here right now. We don't know. It looks better and better all the time. But there's a lot to happen between free agency, the draft, post-draft."

During that time, Lewis will be continuing his road to recovery, his path to proving the doubters wrong.

"He's been positive and real upbeat, but he realizes the next three or four months is the most important time of his career," said tight end Shannon Sharpe, who often trains with Lewis. "He wants to be the back that everybody remembers him as. It's up to him. The ball is in his court."

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