BEREA - Jamal Lewis has plenty to prove Sunday when he returns to Baltimore for the first time as a member of the opposition.
He has the chance to show the Ravens they gave up on him too early; the league he`s got plenty left in the tank as he makes his 100th career start; the Browns he`s better than the 16 carries for 35 yards and two fumbles (one lost) last week vs. Pittsburgh.
"It`s going to be real emotional," Lewis said, "just knowing the history I have there."
The Ravens drafted Lewis fifth overall in the 2000 draft out of Tennessee. He played there for seven years and holds team records for touchdowns (47), rushing touchdowns (45), carries (1,822) and rushing yards (7,801). He helped the Ravens to a Super Bowl his rookie season and was named the NFL`s offensive player of the year with 2,066 yards in 2003.
The Ravens let him go in the offseason rather than pay a $5 million roster bonus, and he signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Browns. He doesn`t know what reception he`ll receive from the fans.
"Shoot, I don`t know," he said. "I had boos when I was there."
"I`ll be surprised if he doesn`t get a great reception," said punter Dave Zastudil, who played with Lewis in Baltimore. "He had a career year and helped them win a Super Bowl."
Lewis` average per carry had dipped from a gaudy 5.3 in 2003 to a pedestrian 3.6 last year. It`s at 4.0 through eight games with the Browns, but has taken a hit the last three weeks. He averaged 3.6 on 17 carries vs. St. Louis in his return from a foot strain, 1.9 on 20 carries vs. Seattle (he did have four touchdowns) and 2.2 in 16 carries vs. Pittsburgh. He has 130 carries for 515 yards and six touchdowns.
"A lot of aspects lie in the running game," said Lewis, who said the foot isn`t an issue. "A lot of things from the outside looking in people just won`t understand."
Lewis (5-foot-11, 245 pounds) is a bruising back whose impact grows as the game wears on. Since getting 27 carries vs. the Bengals in Week 2, he has exceeded 20 just once.
"When you`ve had success running the football in the past like I`ve had, it comes from being consistent in the running game," he said. "You can`t shy away from it and you can`t get discouraged with 1- and 2-yard runs. I don`t. You just have to keep pressing on."
"It`s like boxing and body punches," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "Maybe you`re not getting a knockout early in the game but if you can continue and get to the later rounds and still fight, you`ll get the knockout."
That`s not always the easiest thing against a defense like Pittsburgh`s or Baltimore`s, both of which rank in the top five against the run. Lewis ran five times for 5 yards with a lost fumble in the second half vs. the Steelers.
"You look at Pittsburgh and there are a lot of running backs whose per-carry average is down," Chudzinski said. "I think Jamal is doing fine. We can block better for him. We can design it better for him. We can give it to him more. Our running game is going to be fine."
Center Hank Fraley put the onus on the line.
"The running game is all on our shoulders," he said. "We have to open up holes and be more consistent."
Lewis is only 28 years old, but has taken a pounding and had knee and ankle surgeries. Many critics have questioned how much he has left in the tank.
"This team is on the rise," he said. "You don`t need something like that to creep in and hurt your offense or team. I`m not feeding into it. It`s just a paper with some print on it."
The one-year deal Lewis signed was supposed to allow him to re-establish his worth for another run at big free-agent dollars. An average season could bring him back to Cleveland.
"I would love to be back here, just because I see where this team is going," said Lewis, who said there haven`t been contract talks. "Who knows what my future holds. It`s not a concern of mine. I`m happy here."
He looked like the Lewis of old when he ran for 216 yards in Week 2 vs. Cincinnati. He averaged 8 yards a carry and had a 66-yarder in which he outran the secondary. Coach Romeo Crennel hasn`t forgotten.
"When he ran for 200, we felt pretty good about him," he said. "I think he still has that kind of ability."
He has a chance to prove it Sunday.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.