Ravens need to start thinking of alternatives
The Ravens don't know what will happen with Jamal Lewis, but they have to make contingency plans.
Despite a pronounced limp and the conspicuous cane, reminders of a recent hip operation, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome hobbled through the NFL combine sessions last week apprising everyone who inquired about his health that he felt fine.
Of course, the hip replacement surgery had been planned for months, and Newsome had been prepared for the recovery process that would follow the procedure. What Newsome wasn't prepared for at the time was the possibility he and the Ravens organization might suddenly require a tailback replacement procedure.
It is an unfair leap, to be sure, from indictment to conviction. The trial of another Ravens star, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, in Atlanta should forever serve as a reminder of that. But in the case of Baltimore tailback Jamal Lewis, indicted Wednesday afternoon on federal drug charges, and less than two months after he completed one of the best single-season rushing performances in league history, Newsome must consider the pragmatic approach and embrace it soon.
While no one in the Ravens' organization wants to even remotely consider a season minus Lewis, who in addition to the federal charges faces possible NFL sanctions under statutes of the substance abuse policy, Newsome can't afford to delay planning the appropriate contingencies in the event of the unthinkable. This is a real-world problem, after all, and Newsome and associates in the Baltimore personnel department must plot out and then ruminate over all potential solutions even before a vacancy in the Ravens' backfield exists.
Conjuring up a list of possible remedies, given that removing Lewis from the offense is akin to ripping out the heart of the otherwise dismal unit, will be no small feat. Not even for a general manager as accomplished as Newsome, ably assisted by personnel director Phil Savage, the tandem that has crafted some of the best draft classes of recent years.
Compliments of the 2003 draft day trade to land quarterback Kyle Boller, the Ravens do not own a first-round pick in '04, and their initial selection on April 24 won't arrive until 50 names are off the board. Recent history has demonstrated it is possible to unearth an exceptional running back in the second round or even lower. Fact is, another tailback who has been in the news a lot lately, Clinton Portis, ironically was chosen with the 51st pick -- yeah, the same slot the Ravens own -- in the 2004 lottery.
Then again, tailbacks who rush for 2,000 yards are a bit rarer after the first round. Of the five men to accomplish that feat, just one, Terrell Davis, wasn't a first-rounder. And so locating a Lewis reincarnation in the personage of any of the second-tier tailbacks available in the draft is anything but a slam-dunk.
Neither is the litany of backs soon available in unrestricted free agency a particularly impressive list. Get past the name of Duce Staley, and maybe that of a resurgent Thomas Jones, and the pickings are dismally slim. The situation isn't much more appetizing on the current Baltimore roster. Chester Taylor is a nice third-down back -- has run well at times against air, when everyone is expecting a pass, and he bursts into the secondary on a draw play -- but has only 96 carries in two seasons. The promising Musa Smith, a third-round pick in 2003, missed much of his rookie campaign because of injuries and finished with just nine rushing attempts.
But somewhere the ever-resourceful Newsome, who has declined to address the Lewis situation with anything more than a prepared statement, has to find a tailback. You hope for the best in the NFL, plan for the worst, and, unless your name is Bill Belichick, lose sleep at night wondering if there is ever a situation in this salary cap and free agency era in which sufficient depth has been assembled.
The Ravens, who have done an estimable job in rebuilding after being forced to tear the club apart only three years ago because of owner Art Modell's cap excesses, have more than $20 million in spending room entering this offseason. But even that kind of cap room means little if there is no viable alternative tailback in whom to invest it.
Beyond his trouble with the Feds, who spent the past 3½ years preparing the case against him, Lewis is once again under the purview now of the NFL's substance abuse policy and will, at some point, face an awkward date with the commissioner. An attorney by trade, Paul Tagliabue has always been mindful (almost to a fault) of due process, and that will be the case again in this circumstance.
Jamal Lewis, though, is a two-time loser by definition. Lewis served a suspension late in the 2001 season -- a league sanction that flew well below the radar, since Lewis had torn an anterior cruciate ligament in training camp that year, and wasn't playing anyway -- and that means he has been a multiple offender. No matter what the courts rule, Lewis will be scrutinized closely by the NFL and the legion of former FBI agents it employs, and he is still at the mercy of Tagliabue's discretionary clout.
Ergo, it would be wise for the Ravens to approach the unknown by plugging in some sort of known commodity at tailback. Even some Baltimore coaches agree.
"You hate to think about what could happen with (Lewis), but we've got to be (prudent) and make sure that we cover our asses here," said one Ravens staffer.
Easier said, of course, than done. Lewis wasn't just the centerpiece of the Ravens' offense in '03; he was the offense. For the NFL's top-rated rushing offense, he accounted for 77.4 percent of the production and 80.9 percent of the carries by running backs. His combined yards from scrimmage represented 46.1 percent of all Ravens real estate, and he touched the ball on 40.9 percent of the club's snaps.
Those will be impossible numbers to replace if Lewis isn't in the lineup. And it could well be that Newsome doesn't even try and, instead, opts for another alternative. Uh, like what, you say? Like perhaps trying to upgrade the Stone Age passing game that Baltimore exhibited in 2003.
Boller, the tangible manifestation of the Ravens' lack of a first-round pick this year, has to improve on his rookie campaign. Toward that end, coach Brian Billick imported former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel to help out. Another upgrade could come at the wide receiver spot. Keyshawn Johnson, currently occupied with trying to sell himself to the Dallas Cowboys, has mentioned Baltimore as a possible new home. And the 49ers, despite now owning the rights to Terrell Owens for three more seasons, still plan to deal their problem-child star in a trade.
Virtually any move Newsome makes can't help but aid a passing game that statistically ranked as the NFL's worst in 2003. And, let's face it, the anemic passing attack had to be addressed this offseason, certainly rated as a Ravens priority, even before Jamal Lewis was indicted. Should the Ravens bump up the aerial side, and have Lewis acquitted of the federal charges, they will be that much more ahead.
Then again, if Lewis is out of the lineup for any appreciable time and the Ravens haven't located a worthy stand-in, then the offense could suffer a limp as notable as the one with which Newsome is attempting to navigate these days.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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