AFTER THREE minicamps, a training camp, four preseason games, a hunt for a right offensive tackle and a search for progress in a young quarterback, any chance for the Ravens to have reasonable success in 2002 has come back to running back Jamal Lewis.
Lewis gave the Ravens great optimism to repeat as Super Bowl champions last year until a major knee injury in August forced him to miss the entire season. The makeup of this year's team has changed. Seven defensive starters are gone. Tight end Shannon Sharpe has returned to Denver, wide receiver Qadry Ismail moved under the cover of darkness in a Mayflower van to join the Colts in Indianapolis and quarterback Elvis Grbac has become a member of the AARP.
So that still brings us back to Lewis.
If he plays well, the Ravens might win four or five games. If he doesn't, 2002 could be a disaster.
As the preseason progressed, you wanted to find some favorable signs. Like maybe coach Brian Billick and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh would actually build a decent offense for a change. Or third-year quarterback Chris Redman would develop faster than expected. Or maybe the Ravens would discover a cloning method that could spit out another Tony Siragusa or Sam Adams to protect Ray Lewis in the middle.
It didn't happen.
Here's what we have so far for 2002: a lame offense again, a potential quarterback controversy again, a secondary that doesn't have a clue and 19 rookies who need to be potty-trained about the NFL.
Ravens owner Art Modell was no Joe Namath when he guaranteed that "the Ravens would be a much better team at the end of the season then when they started."
It can't get much worse, unless Jamal Lewis gets hurt again. No one in the Ravens' organization deserves that curse.
But with Lewis, the Ravens have a chance. He is already the team's most valuable player without having played a down. If the Ravens can run the ball effectively, that takes pressure off Redman and allows more time for his development. If Lewis is effective, the Ravens' secondary won't be making Hall of Fame quarterbacks out of Joe Palookas.
So far, Lewis has been impressive. Despite reneging on his word to come into training camp like Superman (he was 10 to 12 pounds overweight), he has run the ball reasonably well. He looked sharp against the New York Jets in the second preseason game and was respectable in the preseason closer against the Giants even though he was slow accelerating through holes.
If the knee holds up, the Ravens would like to work Lewis back into his role of 2000, when he rushed for 1,364 yards on 287 carries and controlled the time of possession.
Billick knows that Lewis is his best chance for success. When the Ravens re-signed fullback Sam Gash last week, it wasn't because former starter Alan Ricard played poorly. They know Lewis needs a bodyguard on the field. The Untouchables weren't available, so they brought in the mother of all fullbacks.
Putting so much stock in Lewis is a gamble, because major knee injuries usually take about two years to heal. But the Ravens have few other options. Under Redman, the first-team offense didn't score a touchdown in 25 preseason possessions, converting only three field-goal attempts.
Redman holds the ball too long, has been inconsistent and puts little zip on intermediate and long passes. It's understandable why the Ravens want Redman to succeed. He might have a decent future.
But then there is the Billick factor. When it comes to quarterbacks in Baltimore, Billick has little credibility. He has been through seven in three years. He says he is committed to Redman, but wasn't he committed to Scott Mitchell, who lasted six quarters? And wasn't he committed to Grbac before the Ravens wrongfully reneged on his contract?
The commitment to Redman should exist as long as his teammates are willing to play hard with him. That's the true barometer. Billick ignored the signs last season. He should have pulled the plug on Grbac after Grbac cried during the second Cleveland game and Sharpe criticized the quarterback afterward.
That's when commitment ends.
This time, Billick has to play more attention to his players and less to his ego. Jeff Blake could become the quarterback of the future just as well as Redman.
But there are questions about other players besides Redman. Edwin Mulitalo hasn't been overly impressive at right offensive tackle, and the offensive line still has to show it can pick up blitzes in the middle. The Ravens spoke highly of receivers Brandon Stokley and Travis Taylor when they were drafted, but neither got much separation from defensive backs in the preseason. One gets hurt a lot (Stokley), the other (Taylor) disappears from the offense.
Defensively, Ray Lewis is going to get banged on this season. There are no tackles to protect him from offensive guards. If a team goes with two tight ends or a balanced formation, Lewis has to be on one side of the field, and opponents will run to the other, just like the Jets did in the preseason.
And if teams can't run, they'll pass against the Ravens, who for some strange reason still can't get their linebackers into the flats to cover running backs.
But if the Ravens can run the ball, that takes one Lewis off the field, and puts Jamal Lewis on it. And if Jamal Lewis has the ball in his hands, it takes more of the decision-making out of Billick's and Cavanaugh's hands. That's a good thing.
It's a simple but effective game plan. It's the Ravens' best chance of winning a few games.