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In end, back leaves a memorable legacy

The Baltimore Sun

No matter where they go from here, the Ravens and Jamal Lewis will always have their Super Bowl victory. No matter how this divorce plays out, they will always have Lewis' enchanting run to 2,000-yard history.

An era ended this week when Lewis, the mercurial running back who helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl in January 2001, signed a one-year contract with the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens are moving on, too, with Willis McGahee, a gritty running back acquired from the Buffalo Bills.

The Lewis era was accented by glorious peaks and numbing valleys. He was the focal point of the Ravens' offense as a rookie, a punishing 1,300-yard rusher. And in 2003, one season after coming back from knee surgery, he was the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year.

"He was as integral a part of the success we've had over the last nine years as anybody we've had here," Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday.

But there was a troubling side to Lewis, too.

There was an NFL suspension in 2001 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

There was a guilty plea in 2004 to the federal felony charge of using a cell phone four years earlier to assist in a drug deal. He spent four months in federal prison and two more in a halfway house.

In 2005, coming off ankle surgery, Lewis was at the center of a dysfunctional locker room, carping about his lack of carries and the team's suspect play-calling. His mood plunged with his production level.

The 27-year-old running back who will show up in Cleveland next season is diminished from the ramrod, breakaway threat that powered his way to 2,066 yards in 2003. But the memories he leaves behind are as powerful as his forearm shiver.

"He was the best running back I blocked for," former Ravens offensive tackle Orlando Brown said. "He loved those zone [blocking] plays. He'd come down the hill and cut it back. I got a lot of pancakes [flattening defenders] with him running. I liked his style."

It was a style all his own. At 5 feet 11 and more than 245 pounds, Lewis could deliver a blow to would-be tacklers. But he also had quick feet and was not to be caught once he passed the second line of defense.

That, Billick said, was what made Lewis unique.

"There are quick backs, big backs, fast backs," Billick said. "But very few combined it the way he did. He'd pitter-patter into the hole, move laterally and explode with speed, then run you over. It's a magical combination."

Lewis churned for a franchise-record 7,801 yards in 91 regular-season games. He rushed for 426 more in the postseason. In the middle of his 2,066-yard season in 2003, he gouged the Browns for an NFL-record 295 yards in one afternoon.

But as terrific a runner as Lewis was in the front end of his career, he was never the same back after the 2,000-yard campaign.

In his first three seasons, discounting the 2001 season he missed to knee surgery, he had 1,004 carries and 4,757 rushing yards, a 4.7-yard average.

In the past three years, he has 818 carries for 3,044 yards and a 3.7-yard average.

In a teleconference with Cleveland reporters, Lewis said he still is capable of running like he did in 2003, but was hampered by bone spurs last season.

"I couldn't really fly off like I wanted to with the bone spurs," he said. "I couldn't really plant on that ankle. I tried to fight through it and I gave it my all. After the season I had to get those removed. ... I have more of a range of motion in my ankle, and it's going to be a major plus for me."

The Ravens cut Lewis on Feb. 28 rather than pay him a $5 million roster bonus, then attempted to re-sign him. When he balked at their one-year, $2 million offer, they went after McGahee.

It was bottom-line business in the NFL. Just ask Edwin Mulitalo, the Ravens' left guard who was cut two days ago to help facilitate the deal for McGahee.

"It is a business," Mulitalo said yesterday before leaving for Detroit to visit the Lions. "Guys who get emotional and have egos, it may hurt that way.

"Obviously, the Ravens are going to be a team to be reckoned with next year. It would have been nice to have Jamal come back and be part of it. But I think every athlete, deep inside, knows his worth. I think they could've made a deal."

Lewis wound up with a one-year, $3.5 million deal in Cleveland.

In Cleveland, Lewis downplayed the fact he'll face the Ravens twice a year in the AFC North. He expressed a kinship with Browns general manager Phil Savage, who had a voice in drafting Lewis in 2000 while working for the Ravens.

"Phil Savage knows what type of running back I am," Lewis said. "He knows what I'm capable of doing. I'm glad he got me out of my situation and put me in a better one."

What he leaves here are memories.


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