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J. Lewis back, but backup plan needed

The Baltimore Sun

In the days leading up to the Ravens' season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jamal Lewis had a peaceful, confident look in his eyes, which was a good reminder of at least this much: When it comes to running backs, trust their legs, not their eyes.

The preseason and the offseason buzz has focused mostly on Steve McNair and Ray Lewis. Nearly lost in the discussion has been Jamal Lewis, who enters today's game hounded by a question mark bigger than anyone else in purple.

During the preseason, McNair showed that he's a leader. He showed that he knows the playbook. And by halftime today, Kyle Boller will be only a ghost of seasons past.

And during the preseason, Ray Lewis showed that he's healthy. He showed that his energy level is back and that he wants to lead the defense again. By halftime today, that 2005 attitude problem will be just a footnote to a forgettable season.

But Jamal Lewis has shown absolutely nothing to alleviate concerns. He has given zero hints that he's capable of putting up the numbers that made him one of the league's most dominant backs just a few seasons ago.

The prospect that Lewis has already reached his peak should worry the Ravens. This team more than others knows that you can win without a quarterback, but it's not quite as easy without a pair of good legs in the backfield.

You don't want to diminish the role of the quarterback (or the offensive line ... or a good defense ... or ... ), but a successful running game results in a successful team. Consider this: In the past five years, there have been 60 playoff teams. Over that period, about half the teams in the league had a 1,000-yard back during the regular season, but 63 percent of the playoff teams (38 of 60) featured one.

Taking one more step back, of the 40 Super Bowl teams in the past 20 years, 29 reached the championship game riding the legs of a 1,000-yard back.

Lewis knows how important his role is. Early indications don't suggest that the offense will suddenly stretch the field with the addition of McNair's throwing arm. Fun-and-gun? No, more like another season of run-or-done. A quality running back is vital to the Ravens' success.

Two of the Ravens' three postseason appearances came in Lewis' two best statistical seasons - 2000 (1,364 rushing yards) and 2003 (2,066 yards). But last year was Lewis' worst and the end result was one of the Ravens' worst. (Of course, Lewis hardly shoulders all of the blame for their 6-10 record.)

He wants you to think that he's entering this season with a clear head and a fresh start, but there are no guarantees.

"Thank God everything is done with," he says, alluding to recent legal, health and contract distractions. "The only thing I have to do is play football. That's the only thing I have to concentrate on for the next five months. So, what better life is there to have?"

His words are confident and his eyes tell you he believes what he says. But you can only really trust his legs, which means the Ravens can't give Lewis a long leash. Sure, he's traditionally a slow starter, but the coaches must be prepared to face the reality that Lewis might no longer be capable of averaging 4 yards a carry. They can't give him 16 weeks to show everyone what he can't do. The stakes are too high and backups Mike Anderson and Musa Smith are too good.

And it's not like Lewis will be taking plays off. Because he's essentially in a contract year, he must know that he needs to disprove critics.

"I don't think I'm perceived around the league [as anything] but as a great player," he says, and that was certainly a true statement three years ago.

He continued: "I don't care what the media or coaches say. I just know how those 11 guys on the other side of the field perceive me. I don't think not one guy can say, 'We can slouch on this guy because he doesn't have it anymore.' Those are the guys that I worry about it, not the people that are not wearing the pads."

Yet those 11 men on the other side are the exact ones who kept showing us Lewis' limitations last season - and then again in his limited action this preseason - continually stuffing him at the line of scrimmage.

A tough balancing act awaits. Last year, the Ravens saw early that Lewis showed only flashes of his former self, and they probably gave him too many chances. Already this year Lewis is continuing to lobby for more carries, but he must realize that carries aren't the problem. Before he can have 25-plus touches a game, he needs to make the most with the ones he gets.

If he can't, there are a couple of other backs on the sideline who want a shot. Anderson didn't blow anyone away during preseason, but Smith certainly caught a few eyes. They're ready.

And the coaches should be ready, too - the worst-case scenario isn't far-fetched, no matter what Lewis' cool, calm demeanor might indicate. rick.maese@baltsun.com

Points after -- Rick Maese

Grass sponsorship secured -- Did you see that High Times named the University of Maryland the nation's No. 1 "stoner school," thus answering the biggest question surrounding Terps' football: Why do all of the concessions stands at Byrd Stadium run out of Funyuns by the end of the first quarter?

The grandest -- There has been a lot of talk about whether Tiger Woods is the most dominant athlete of any sport. Although it's a valid argument, it's also worth noting that Woods probably isn't even the most dominant athlete in his era. Woods' best stretch included winning seven majors in 11 appearances. Tennis star Roger Federer has won eight Grand Slams in his past 13 appearances (he also won seven in 11), and he's showing no signs of letting up. Oh, yeah, and Federer is only 25.

Cracking down -- Kudos to new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who last week said the league would revisit and possibly strengthen its drug-testing program. Unfortunately, he also said there's no evidence of widespread human growth hormone use. Of course there's no concrete evidence - the NFL doesn't test for it. Finding a reliable test is an urgent matter because if league officials really think that players aren't taking advantage of this untested hormone, either they're foolish or they think that everyone else is.

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