Jamal Lewis, coming off the second-highest rushing total in NFL history, is accused of trying to help a childhood friend buy cocaine in Atlanta during the summer of 2000.
Team officials said they were "caught off guard" when they learned the news late yesterday afternoon, but the club expressed optimism that the All-Pro running back will be cleared of the charges. Lewis, who is in Florida, told the Ravens that he is returning to Atlanta to turn himself in to authorities.
"We believe in due process, and Jamal will have his day in court," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement. "There are two sides to every story. From what we know of the charges, these seem out of character for the Jamal we know."
Beyond this brief statement, Ravens officials declined to comment further.
If Lewis is found guilty of any charges, his future in the NFL is uncertain.
In November 2001, he was suspended four games while on injured reserve for a second violation of the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy. The league did not disclose the details of the violation, in keeping with its policy.
The NFL may have the right to suspend Lewis up to one year for another violation under league policies or it could refrain from any penalty because the alleged incident occurred before Lewis signed his six-year, $35.3 million contract with the Ravens. Lewis was the fifth player drafted overall in April 2000.
The NFL and Lewis' agent, Jeff Deutsch, also declined to comment.
The indictment stirred up memories of January 2000, when Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men in Atlanta in the early morning after the Super Bowl.
The Ravens threw their support behind Ray Lewis. Owner Art Modell acted as a character witness at his bond hearing. He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charges.
Jamal Lewis has hired Edward T.M. Garland and his partner, Don Samuel, the same two lawyers who represented Ray Lewis during the 2000 trial.
Team officials apparently have not discussed any contingency plans at running back.
Lewis gained 2,066 yards this season, falling 39 yards short of Eric Dickerson's NFL record. The centerpiece of the Ravens' offense, Lewis accounted for 42 percent of the total offense for the Ravens, who won their first division title in franchise history.
Without Lewis, the Ravens' top running backs are Chester Taylor and Musa Smith, who have combined for 105 carries and two starts.
Although most of Lewis' teammates reached last night declined to comment, they all said they were taken aback when hearing the news on television.
"All you can say is 'Wow,'" said outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, who was drafted the same year as Lewis. "You're kind of mind-boggled because you're talking about something that happened four years ago.
"If he needs me, I'm here for him. I'm here for support."
Lewis wouldn't be the first running back whom the Ravens would back during legal problems. In 1996, the Ravens signed Bam Morris to a two-year, $1.8 million contract six months after he was arrested and charged with having almost 6 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of his car.
Morris continued to play for the Ravens through the 1997 season after prosecutors charged that he violated his probation by drinking alcohol and missing meetings with his probation officer. After the season, Morris served a four-month prison term and the Ravens decided not to re-sign him.
Modell, who is selling the remaining 51 percent of the team to Steve Bisciotti in April, has a history of helping rehabilitate players. When his franchise was in Cleveland, he created the Inner Circle, making the Browns one of the first franchises to offer a drug- and alcohol-abuse center to players.
In December 1999, the Carolina Panthers chose to release wide receiver Rae Carruth -- citing a personal conduct clause of the standard NFL player's contract -- after he fled Charlotte, N.C., while under indictment for the drive-by shooting of his pregnant girlfriend. Carruth had fled after his girlfriend died as a result of the shooting.
"We're not trying to demonstrate guilt or innocence or anything else," George Seifert, then the Panthers coach, told the Charlotte Observer at the time. "It's almost [like] our hands are tied. It's something we have to do under these circumstances."
On Jan. 19, 2001, Carruth was convicted of conspiracy in the shooting but acquitted of first-degree murder.
During this NBA season, All-Star guard Kobe Bryant has continued to play for the Los Angeles Lakers while he faces sexual assault charges in Colorado. Bryant has had to miss time with the team for court appearances.
Meanwhile, the Ravens begin their offseason conditioning program in late March and won't practice as a team until their first minicamp May 7. This incident may limit Lewis' participation as well as complicate potential contract talks.
This month, team officials said they had talks about signing Lewis to a new contract. If a deal were going to be reached, it probably would occur around training camp in August.
Lewis has two years left on his current contract and is scheduled to earn $2.4 million next season, which is not among the top 10 highest-paid running backs in the league.
"We see Jamal just as we saw Jonathan [Ogden], Peter [Boulware] and Ray Lewis," Newsome said a few weeks ago, referring to three Pro Bowl players the Ravens signed to new contracts over the years.