A strong running game has been one of the staples of the Ravens success over the years. One of the best running backs ever to wear purple in Baltimore was selected fifth overall in the 2000 draft, from the University of Tennessee -Jamal Lewis.
Not everybody was excited the day Lewis’ name was called. There were cries of skepticism from the fans and the so-called experts when Lewis was made the first running back selected of the draft over other notables as Thomas Jones, Ron Dayne, and Alabama’s Shaun Alexander. (Ozzie doesn’t always roll with the Tide)
CNN college football analyst Trev Alberts described the Ravens’ pick of Lewis as “ridiculous” while Sports Illustrated reporter Peter King wrote, “Shaun Alexander [the running back selected 19th by Seattle] will be a better pro than Jamal Lewis.”
I was watching the draft that day at the Barn in Parkville and the fan reaction wasn’t kind to Lewis’ selection. Instead most wanted huge wide receiver Plaxico Burress out of Michigan State but he was snagged by the hated Steelers three picks later. The Ravens would get their receiver in Round One but it turned out to be the disappointing Travis Taylor from Florida.
Lewis answered his critics with an excellent rookie campaign rushing for over 1,300 yards with 6 touchdowns as he eventually replaced Priest Holmes as the feature back in the offense. His brute force and raw talent were vital in helping the Ravens to their only NFL title that same season. He became only the second rookie to rush for over 100 yards in a Super Bowl and the youngest to ever score at touchdown in the Big Game at age twenty-one.
The Ravens’ chances of a repeat performance took a huge hit in August when Lewis tore ligaments in his left knee during a morning practice in 2001. The injury was originally diagnosed as a knee bruise after a hit from reserve lineman Kelly Gregg, an MRI later revealed the tear. He would miss the entire season.
Lewis was able to return to form in 2002 with almost identical numbers to rookie campaign but the best had yet to come for “The Beast”. In 2003, Lewis fell short of setting a new NFL single-season rushing record by rushing for 2,066 yards, 39 shy of Eric Dickerson. He was an All-Pro, named to the Pro Bowl, earned AFC Player of the year, and was selected by the AP as the Offensive player of the year.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of that stellar season was on September 14, 2003 when he ran all over the Cleveland Browns for 295 yards, breaking Corey Dillion’s single game rushing record of 275. Lewis scored twice as he led Baltimore to a 33-13 trouncing in Week Three.
I can remember that day very clearly as a fan in the stands up in Section 524. Lewis set the tone on the game’s second play, following a solid down-field block by Travis Taylor on his way to an 82-yard score. I had a feeling that he was headed for a special day.
Cleveland rallied to cut the Ravens lead to three (16-13) at the start of the Fourth Quarter but once again Lewis ripped off a huge run, this time 63 yards to give the team the momentum and a ten point cushion heading into the final period.
It should also be noted that he might have surpassed three hundred yards that day if nor for a holding penalty on Marcus Robinson that negated a 60-yard run in the First Half.
It was an incredible individual performance and one that I can say I had the honor of seeing live.
By game’s end Lewis had carried the ball thirty times, rushing for a 9.8 yards per carry and had dominated a defense that knew he was coming but were powerless to stop him. It had to be demoralizing for the Cleveland defense who learned that Lewis was gunning for them earlier in the week. It leaked out that Lewis had a phone conversation with Browns linebacker Andra Davis and had predicted if he’d get the ball thirty times he would break the single game rushing record.
Lewis would go on to play just three more seasons in Baltimore and while he was effective despite battling through injuries he could never duplicate the tremendous success of that 03′ season. The Ravens released him in February of 2007 but had stated that they had hoped to resign him. Instead in an ironic twist, two weeks later he inked a deal with the Browns. Injuries caught up to him and he was placed on Injured Reserve in 2009 and retired the following year.
Even though the Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson broke Lewis’ single game rushing record in 2007 by one yard against San Diego no one, (least of all yours truly) will ever forget witnessing the sheer power and determination of Jamal Lewis on that history making afternoon.