BEREA — It’s all in the power of the imagery. The photograph shows a football player running through a standard training camp drill, but there’s nothing standard about its suggestion.
On the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, Cleveland Browns running back Jamal Lewis is seen bursting through a padded gauntlet in vibrant colors, his piercing eyes staring down the reader.
SI chose Lewis as the face of its “Secrets and Surprises” cover story, highlighting newcomers likely to impact the 2007 season. It marks the first time since 1999 the Browns have graced the cover, when Tim Couch and Akili Smith posed before the draft with “Big Dawg” John Thompson as the potential saviors to a reborn franchise.
No one is hailing Lewis the savior of anything these days, except perhaps a running game that was nonexistent a year ago.
Lewis was stunned to hear that he would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. He’s never made the front page before, not even when he rushed for 2,066 yards, the second-best single-season total in league history, in his career year of 2003 for the Baltimore Ravens.
Some might suggest Lewis’ mug atop the sports weekly is the worst possible news that could befall the Browns organization, citing the dreaded “SI Jinx.”
Lewis waves his hand dismissively at the superstition.
“I don’t know anything about any jinx,” he said Wednesday, following a morning session at training camp. “I don’t believe too much in jinxes. I’ve been injured before and that was never a jinx.”
Curses and blights had little to do with the dip in Lewis’ performance in recent years. Instead, Lewis has been slowed by an assortment of ankle injuries and, in his view, Baltimore’s shift from power football.
Lewis started all 16 regular-season games in 2006 and rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns on 314 carries. While the totals appear to be, at worst, respectable, the peripheral numbers suggest a runner in decline. Lewis averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, which was the second-lowest average of his career.
Soon after the 2006 season ended, Lewis underwent surgery on his right ankle, which he said limited his movement all year.
“I wasn’t at 90 percent at all last season,” said Lewis.
Baltimore cut ties with its franchise rushing leader only weeks later in a salary cap dump.
Browns general manager Phil Savage acquired the eighth-year back in March, dangling a creative salary structure of $1.5 million in incentives on top of a one-year, $3.5 million deal — with the added bonus that he can become a free agent next season.
“I know a hungry Jamal is a good Jamal because he’s got something to prove,” said Savage.
The NFL has a knack for chewing up and spitting out running backs like sunflower seeds. Although Lewis has logged 1,822 carries and 7,801 yards over his career, he is quick to remind skeptics of another revealing number — 27, being his age.
“I don’t think I look older than 27,” said Lewis. “I think I look younger than that. I’m making cuts I haven’t really made in the last two years. Everybody says (running backs start breaking down after 1,800 career carries), but look at Warrick Dunn, look at Priest Holmes, look at what Curtis Martin did before he retired. All these guys are older and they’ve show you can take a lot of carries and still be productive.”
With a reshuffled offensive line that’s seen an influx of talent, coupled with a healthy Lewis, the Browns could have a potentially prolific ground game. Cleveland ranked 31st in the league in total rushing yards (1,335) in 2006, 29th in yards per attempt (3.6), 29th in rushing touchdowns (seven) and 31st in runs of 20 yards or more (2).
Browns coach Romeo Crennel believes Lewis is entering an ideal situation in Cleveland in which the expectations are minimal and the potential is great.
“I think he’ll be able to help us,” said Crennel. “I think he’ll be hard to tackle and he’ll show his burst and out-run some people. Now, whether he out-runs them for a touchdown remains to be seen, but I think he’ll surprise some people.”
No one has had a better vantage point of just how powerful a runner Lewis can be than veteran right tackle Ryan Tucker, who is now in his sixth year with the Browns. Tucker was on the field four years ago when Lewis posted the greatest single-game rushing total in NFL history with 295 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries.
When the two met earlier this summer, Tucker said he couldn’t place Lewis’ face. Then, when Lewis turned around, Tucker joked that he instantly recognized him — having spent so much time over the years watching him sprint away from the Browns’ defense for long touchdowns.
“I’m not going to say I am as good as I was (in 2003),” said Lewis. “But I am smarter now, more patient now with my running style and I am much wiser. That’s what a veteran offers to a team and to this position.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or at email@example.com.