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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Plenty Is Riding on Knee of Ravens' Jamal Lewis


There is one constant in the year of change for the Baltimore Ravens: the key to the upcoming season is running back Jamal Lewis.

He is the other Lewis, besides middle linebacker Ray, that the Ravens can't afford to lose. Even with a starting lineup intact, the Ravens will struggle to reach .500 in 2002. Without Jamal, they'll struggle to win a few games. Period.

The Ravens' brass knows that.

With the opening of training camp about three weeks away, they're holding their collective breath and crossing fingers that Lewis shows up healthy.

Lewis was on a Florida beach this week. He plans to fly into Baltimore the night before training camp, but plans to change clothes in a phone booth.

"I'm going to be looking like Superman," Lewis said. "I've got a lot to prove and a lot to accomplish. We've got a lot of young guys, and I've got to be one of the leaders."

Impressive, huh?

Here's more: Lewis tore a left anterior cruciate ligament and sprained the medial collateral ligament last Aug. 8, forcing him to miss the 2001 season. Since the last mandatory camp ended June 13, the third-year veteran has worked out daily with personal trainer Tony Villanie from 8 in the morning until noon, mostly on speed and stabilization drills for the injured knee.

Once a week Lewis travels to the beach, working exclusively on knee drive. He says he weighs 245, and will report at 235.

Comeback attempts are nothing new. There was major reconstructive surgery on his right knee as a sophomore at the University of Tennessee.

"For me, it's been easier because I've been there," Lewis said. "I knew what it was going to take. Looking back when it happened last year, I really didn't get hit. I kind of got nicked, but my knee was in the right place at the right time. It was meant to happen.

"Some people have suggested that it's a two-year injury, but I can't think that way," Lewis said. "I'm going into this thinking that I'm just as good as before, that I've got my speed back to where it was before when I turned the corner on the sidelines."

It was beautiful to watch, a 5-foot-11, 235-pound diesel running downhill. As a rookie, Lewis was the rare blend of speed and power who ran around and through defenses for 1,364 yards on 309 carries. He scored six touchdowns--most via the air in the red zone--with Lewis going airborne over the line of scrimmage with that vintage, outstretched arm move.

Ball control and a great defense, that was the Ravens' forte then. But times have changed. The Ravens are young. Seven starters from the league's best defense the past two years are gone. The top two candidates for the No. 2 running back position are rookies.

The Ravens need Lewis to run. In the words of the King of Soul, James Brown, "Please, Please, Please," let the kid be able to run.

No player would benefit more than quarterback Chris Redman. A running game would take a lot of pressure off the third-year player, who has seen less than two full quarters of playing time. Redman could use the time to become more comfortable with receivers Brandon Stokley, Todd Heap and Travis Taylor, who are nearly as inexperienced as Redman.

If Lewis gets injured again, that would leave the Ravens with Chestor Taylor and Tellis Redmon as possible starters. Things could get ugly.

"That is a little scary," said Coach Brian Billick. "You have to be as nervous about the situation as the Colts were last year with (Edgerrin) James and (Dominic) Rhodes as his backup. I'd like to bring in another veteran, but we don't have that option."

The defense needs Lewis to play well, too. Here's what is going to happen: Teams will isolate on young linebackers Adalius Thomas, Ed Hartwell and cornerback Gary Baxter, and they'll give up big plays early. But if Lewis runs well, the less time the trio will spend on the field.

If the Ravens can't run the ball, the front seven, with four new players, stays on the field longer.

The Ravens know about the importance of Lewis. They've maintained constant contact with him at the University of Tennessee, where he works out. When there are any communication problems, the Ravens dispatch a coach or trainer faster than SWAT teams move in on a hostage situation.

At the end of the team's last minicamp, Lewis said he was at 90 percent, which was a slight exaggeration. He was too big, and huffing and puffing at the end of long runs and practice.

A limp was also noticeable after a long run.

"Bill (trainer Tessendorf) attributed that limp to fatigue," Billick said. "We've seen him steadily get stronger. At the first passing camp, you could see a little bit of hitch coming out of the gate. He ran strong, hard, but it was noticeable. During the second passing camp in the first week of June, the hitch seemed to be gone, but we didn't do much.

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