Parting now with J. Lewis would not be sweet at all


It's not that hard to remember, actually, because it has been mentioned so often this season. But Jamal Lewis still is just 26 years old, turning 27 during training camp next summer.

Yet he might very well be in another training camp besides the one he has been in for each of his six NFL seasons. Today's game in Cleveland, the NFL regular-season finale, might be the last for Lewis in a Ravens uniform.

"I think about that," he said last week, on the day it was announced that Brian Billick's job was safe. "But it won't be my last carry, you know? That's the big thing."

Here's hoping that it is not his last as a Raven, because it's a shame when an important player and his team part ways on bad terms.

Lewis did, after all, help this franchise win a Super Bowl, and he's part of the exclusive 2,000-yard club. No matter how much griping he has inspired by his play and his words, nobody has forgotten any of that. Lewis hasn't forgotten.

But how much the fans or writers, or the player himself, want him to stay often has little to do with whether he does. And even when it's not, it doesn't mean there's a bad guy to blame. It's a shame, but it's also life in the big leagues.

Lots of money is involved, whether in the form of a new contract for Lewis or a franchise designation by the Ravens or a big offer from another team. Talk of promises made and broken, betrayals, trust and miscommunication has been hurled back and forth all year.

No matter what happens after today, fingers will be pointing everywhere. Plenty will be pointed at Lewis, whose campaign to air his grievances with the team and the front office over his contract talks at every public opportunity has left lots of his longtime fans cold. Selfish, they've called him, as well as ingrate. And, worse, timid, in light of a noted absence of the urgency in carrying the ball that has been his trademark.

Lewis goes into the finale with 817 yards, and only a flashback to his career-long stampeding of the Browns - nine games, 1,240 yards, including his league-record 295 two seasons ago - will get him to 1,000 yards and make him 5-for-5 in his healthy seasons. A flashback, and he's not shy to remind you, his usual load of carries. That's been his story all year - give me the ball and let me run - and he's sticking to it.

How much, and when, Lewis carried the ball was a major plot line all season, and Billick, the story of the week (or non-story, now that his status for 2006 is set), was entangled in that. It's obvious in hindsight that he wanted Lewis to get the ball and pick up momentum over the course of each game and, eventually, the course of the season. To both, it was the logical way to deal with the time Lewis missed while serving his prison term and rehabbing from ankle surgery.

It sucked what little life there was out of the Ravens' offense early on and created a mild running-back controversy concerning how much Chester Taylor needed to play - but, in fact, Lewis has looked more like himself lately. He had 100-yard games in Cincinnati in November and against the Packers two weeks ago, plus 74 last week against the Vikings. He has done better with more carries, even with a practically brand-new offensive line.

Early in the season, Lewis looked as if the 300 carries per season he averaged coming into this year - even counting last season, when he only played 12 games - had taken the life out of his legs, had pounded him down to a cheap replica of his former self.

It doesn't look that obvious anymore. One more good game today might change everybody's minds about what kind of a back he is at this point in his career, much the way the past two games have altered the opinions on Kyle Boller's quarterbacking future.

Yet it all might be a moot point. Lewis' season-long sermons, about big dogs and leashes and the hokey-pokey, have livened up a dull season. But he may have talked his way right out of the only NFL home he has had.

It's too bad.

Next season, Lewis will not be coming off ankle surgery and will not have prepared for training camp doing prison chores and eating prison food. Nothing will be hanging over his head the way everything did last summer - except the memory of his worst season and, maybe, his contract.

But some other team might benefit from this new, or renewed, version of Jamal. It's crazy to think that he absolutely does not have another 1,500-yard, 4.5-per-carry, 10-touchdown, unstoppable-on-short-yardage, wear-everyone-down season in him. Not at 26 years old, and not when it's so easy to view 2005 as an aberration.

It would simply be better if Jamal Lewis' Ravens career didn't end on a sour note - and that it didn't end today.

Points after -- David Steele

Biggest omission in last week's farewell to Monday Night Football on ABC: ex-Redskin Alvin Garrett, immortalized by Howard Cosell as "that little monkey."

Tony Dungy wouldn't have had a cross word spoken against him had he not talked to reporters after his son's funeral -- but he talked, anyway. I'm awestruck.

Dungy's ex-players and former teammates streamed in for those services. Meanwhile, one active Oriole attended Elrod Hendricks' memorial service. It might be better to be gracious and chalk it up to an unfortunate coincidence.

Kobe Bryant's wannabe-thug checklist: Get arrested, check. Belatedly get tattooed, check. Pick fight with teammate after game-winning play goes wrong, check. Cheap-shot opposing player, then boast about not allowing any "cute stuff" against his team in his house, check. Get suspended, check. Forget that he didn't have these problems when Shaq was around, check.

Three weeks and counting since the Maryland basketball team played a meaningful game. And six more days to go.

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