Inside the Ravens with Aaron Wilson

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jamal Lewis' career winds down, will remember himself as a Raven

OWINGS MILLS – Jamal Lewis’ exit strategy from the NFL was about as subtle as his bulldozing , blunt-force trauma running style.

The powerful former Baltimore Ravens running back trampled the notion about having any second thoughts about his decision to retire following this season as if it was a linebacker standing in his way.

So, there’s unlikely to be any turning back for Lewis or last-minute audible as he closes out a strong NFL career on a horrible Cleveland Browns team that has won just one game.
“Just because I’m tired of it, tired of it, and that was my goal and that’s all I wanted,” Lewis told Baltimore reporters during a Wednesday conference call in advance of Monday night’s game in Cleveland. “So, time to move on.”

During his decade in the NFL, Lewis helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl title as a rookie, rushed for 10,456 yards and 58 touchdowns and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year six years ago in Baltimore when he gained 2,066 yards and broke the NFL single-game rushing record with a 295-yard performance.

Lewis emphasized that he made this decision before the season started and not out of frustration about the Browns’ dysfunctional situation. If anything, time to reflect since his abrupt announcement after being routed by the Chicago Bears has only reinforced his decision to quit.
Unlike many NFL players, Lewis is walking away from the game while he’s still able to walk at age 30.

“I’m in good shape, and that’s how I wanted to leave,” he said. “That’s how I wanted to leave, in good shape and healthy so I can be able to go do other things.”

Lewis has been preparing for this day for a long time, saving his money and making more each year with a variety of businesses that includes a successful long-haul trucking operation and an investment firm. It has been estimated that Lewis’ net worth from his businesses is several millions of dollars annually.

Lewis was following his mother’s advice to prepare for life after football, and it’s a sign of growing maturity after being ensnared in a federal cocaine conspiracy case that forced him to serve jail time during his time with the Ravens.

“I’ve set myself up in other things because I knew this day would come, and I knew that I wanted to retire at year 10,” Lewis said. “I set myself up three or four years ago in order to be able to leave the game when I want to.”

When Lewis was let go by the Ravens following the 2006 season, he was admittedly a bitter man.

He lashed out at former coach Brian Billick for not giving him the football and he vowed to prove that the Ravens were making a mistake.

Lewis had feuded with Billick throughout his final few seasons in Baltimore.

Now, that relationship has apparently been repaired with Lewis and Billick exchanging an enthusiastic greeting at the Browns’ training complex earlier this year.

“I don’t have anything against Brian Billick,” Lewis said. “It’s just when I was there things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, and that was just it.

“I don’t think I fit his scheme, and we agreed to disagree. At the same time, I think he was a great coach. He took care of his players, and he had a good philosophy.”

Rushing for 1,132 yards during his final season in Baltimore, Lewis averaged just 3.6 yards per carry.

He persistently complained about the game plan and his lack of involvement.

Does he wish he had finished his career in Baltimore?

“I can’t say that,” he said. “When I did end up getting the opportunity to get out, it was actually good timing for me in my career. I think Baltimore was going in a different direction when I was there.

“I don’t think it suited me, and I didn’t suit them. So, that’s why the decision was probably made. I think that coming here to Cleveland was a good idea.”

Well, perhaps at first as the Browns nearly made the playoffs during Lewis’ first season in Cleveland as he rushed for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns for his highest rushing total since his epic 2003 campaign.

He slumped to 1,002 yards last season and has gained only 349 yards this season with no touchdowns. None of the Browns’ running backs or wide receivers has scored a touchdown.
And in eight games, it won’t be Lewis’ problem anymore.

“As players get further along in their career, they have to make decisions, and you respect everybody’s decision,” Mangini said. “Someone’s choice to continue to try and play or to move on with the next phase of their life is a very personal decision.

“I respect Jamal as a pro. That hasn’t affected his work ethic or approach, and it won’t.”
Regardless of the nature of Lewis’ pending departure, it has been a chaotic, unproductive work environment during his final NFL season.

“If you’re 1-7, hey, there’s a lot they can say,” Lewis said. “I don’t think that the locker room has turned. I don’t think that anybody has turned their back on the situation or anything. We just have to put it all together.”

The Browns’ disastrous season under new coach Eric Mangini has included several controversies, including former Ravens executive George Kokinis’ ouster. Browns management is attempting to prove that Kokinis was fired with cause in order to collect roughly $4 million remaining on his five-year contract.

“It was shocking to me, of course, but it’s a business,” Lewis said. “Of course when things aren’t going right, there are going to be some losses. I think that’s really what he got caught up in.
“I think it was just a bad season or whatever. Nobody has talked about it around here, but the assumption is that we’re having a bad season and things aren’t going the way we wanted it to and there are some casualties.”

Lewis’ warmest memories of his NFL career are from his seven years in Baltimore after being drafted fifth overall in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft out of the University of Tennessee.
He says he’ll look back on his career as being a Raven, not a Brown after spending the past three years in Cleveland.

“A Raven, of course, because that’s who gave me my shot,” Lewis said. “That’s who brought me in. That’s where I pretty much did all my work.

“I have a lot of memories there, a lot of older players that helped me out and brought me in, led me and showed me the way. That’s where I got it from.”

During the Super Bowl season, Lewis spent a lot of time with veteran players like Rod Woodson, Shannon Sharpe, Ray Lewis and Corey Harris.

An impressionable Lewis entered the NFL at age 20 following his junior season, and he learned how to be a pro from deeds and words.

“Just really hanging around those guys and stealing a lot of knowledge that they had,” Lewis said. “I was one of the young guys that would listen. That team really gave me the real meaning of a championship team, and that’s sticking together and everybody being unselfish.”

Lewis is leaving the NFL in rare company.

He’s one of five NFL running backs to ever eclipse the 2,000-yard barrier, including Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson.

What’s his ultimate legacy?

“Basically, a hard worker, somebody that brought his hard hat to every Sunday, just doing my job,” he said. “That’s what I set out to do, and that’s how I want to be remembered. Just a hard worker and somebody who did his job every single day.”

Monday night figures to be an emotional game for Lewis.

On a national stage, he’ll collide with middle linebacker Ray Lewis one more time with the protégé and the mentor clashing just like old times.

“Being able to go out, playing my old team on Monday Night Football, that will be a great one,” Lewis said. “Being that I will be playing these guys for the last time, being able to suit up against Ray for the last time, it’s a good thing. It will be a memorable moment.”

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Photo by Sabina Moran.

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