||HEADLINE NEWS - Features
Thursday - 8/16/2001
By Joe Platania
WESTMINSTER, Md. (Aug. 14, 2001) -- The Baltimore Ravens know they are the defending Super Bowl champions.
But what they don't know is who their featured running back is going to be.
The revolving door that has historically been the Ravens' tailback slot took another spin last week with Jamal Lewis' season-ending tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The medial-collateral ligament was sprained in the same incident.
Along with right tackle Leon Searcy's torn tricep injury that should keep him out until at least October, Lewis' mishap is yet another blow to an offense that had hoped to break out of a self-imposed shell and make an impact the way its defense did on the way to last year's championship.
But what had to hurt the Ravens even more is that they had planned to get a look at first-year backup Jason Brookins or fifth-round draft pick Chris Barnes under game conditions Monday night, but couldn't thanks to the field conditions at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.
Because of the uneven turf at the Eagles' home, the second preseason cancellation in NFL history and first since 1995's San Diego-Houston contest robbed the Ravens of their opportunity to check on their running back depth.
The effects of -- and reaction to -- Lewis' absence and the Philly fiasco will be featured in this week's third of six installments of HBO's "Hard Knocks: Training Camp With The Baltimore Ravens," which will premiere Wednesday night at 11 p.m. ET and will first re-air Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET.
Four-time 1,000-yard rusher and four-team NFL veteran Terry Allen beat out four other free agents in a half-hour tryout, dubbed the "Running Back Olympics" by player development director Earnest Byner, and was signed Saturday to ostensibly take over Lewis' featured tailback role.
Allen came to the team's Western Maryland College training camp here seemingly wary of how quickly things can change.
"I feel good, but I don't have the starting job just yet," said Allen, who will wear jersey number 29. "You have other guys here who have put in their time. I'm not even close to being in the kind of shape the guys who are here are in now."
Not only is Allen not scheduled to play until the August 31 preseason finale against the New York Giants, the Ravens' running-back carousel that has spun for almost six years might not have stopped yet.
Head coach Brian Billick, a former Minnesota offensive coordinator, has reportedly contacted retired ex-Vikings back Robert Smith, while speculation continues to center on the possible acquisitions of Seattle's Ricky Watters, ex-Eagle Chris Warren (one of the vanquished quartet at last week's free-agent workout) or ex-Raven Errict Rhett, most recently waived by Cleveland.
But Billick and the front office settled on Allen, who worked under Billick's sytem in Minnesota before stints in Washington, New England and New Orleans.
"You won't find a classier, harder-working athlete in the NFL," Billick said of Allen. "It's 30-some-odd days until (Week 1 vs. Chicago), and he's in pretty good shape, but we need to get him in the kind of football shape we need him to be in."
Meanwhile, it will be Brookins, who spent part of last year with the Ravens before heading off to NFL Europe to work on his pass-blocking, who assumes the starting mantle.
"It's unfortunate, what happened to Jamal," Brookins said. "You can tell when he's not there. I'm not trying to fill anybody's shoes, I'm just trying to work as hard as I can.
"Accidents happen, but I still feel we can have a good team."
But it's rather difficult to have a contending team without a consistent presence at running back.
Thurman Thomas was a 12-year Buffalo veteran on a team that went to four straight Super Bowls. Emmitt Smith is entering his 12th season on a Dallas squad that grabbed eight playoff berths, six division titles and three Super Bowls in one decade. Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns went to six postseasons in his nine years with three championship game appearances and one title.
And even with a Super Bowl under its belt, Baltimore's running back woes aren't exactly a new problem for a team that is entering only its sixth year of existence. Since the team moved to Charm City from Cleveland in 1996, no less than 12 tailbacks have occupied spots on the active roster. Because of that -- and because of then-coach Ted Marchibroda's more wide-open offense that featured strong-armed quarterback Vinny Testaverde -- the Ravens had just one run from scrimmage longer than 25 yards during the '96 and '97 seasons.
That run, a 42-yarder by Byner, helped seal a close win over New Orleans in 1996. Byner already occupies the first-ever place in the Ravens' new Ring of Honor at their PSINet Stadium home.
But there's no escaping this fact: through 1997, two of the four longest runs in team history were a 24-yard reverse by wideout Jermaine Lewis and a Testaverde 22-yard scramble.
On top of that, through 1998, the Ravens never averaged more than 110 yards rushing per game and ranked 20th or lower two of those three years while the passing attack ranked among the league's five best.
At one and the same time, the Ravens' growing pains have featured both comic and tragic errors:
� On September 8, 1996, the Ravens played their first-ever road game in Pittsburgh. Facing a goal-to-go situation at the Steelers' one-yard-line, little-known Earnest Hunter was put into the game after a teammate lost his shoe and had to leave the game.
With veteran Earnest Byner at the top of the depth chart, the Ravens needed some backup, so Hunter was the first running back ever signed by the Ravens on July 19 of that year. A product of Southeastern Oklahoma (also the alma mater of one Dennis Rodman, an omen if there ever was one), he was anxious to see what he could do in his first chance in the spotlight.
However, he dove to the wrong hole, fumbled the ball and Pittsburgh recovered on the way to a 31-17 win. It would be Hunter's only carry of the year; he was waived exactly one month later.
� Hoard would gain only 61 yards on 15 carries in three games' worth of action for the '96 Ravens. A powerful, between-the-tackles runner for most of his career, Hoard had led Cleveland in rushing the previous two seasons.
But once in Baltimore, Hoard seemed tentative and did not hit the holes or make his turn on sweeps as crisply as he once did, necessitating his lightning-fast ouster.
� The notorious Byron "Bam" Morris' finest moment as a Raven came during a rain-soaked 1997 game against the rival Washington Redskins. He chewed up the 'Skins defense for 176 yards on 36 carries, imposing most of the damage during a 20-play, second-half TD drive that helped seal a 20-17 win.
However, Morris had to be reinstated by the league after a suspension to even play that year, and he was waived in the offseason.
� Two weeks after Morris' heroics, Jay Graham -- like Jamal Lewis, a big, explosive back from Tennessee -- racked up 154 yards as the Ravens and Eagles fought to a 10-10 tie on a windy day in Baltimore.
But Graham suffered a fate similar to Lewis' in the form of a major knee injury the following season. He was placed on injured reserve before finally being released in 1999.
The 1998 and '99 seasons featured a study in duality: Rhett, the loquacious, lumbering runner who had posted 1,000-yard seasons in Tampa Bay, and Priest Holmes, a quiet, gentlemanly, versatile type who notched the Ravens' first-ever such performance with 1,008 yards and seven touchdowns in '98.
But not even that tandem could even out the team's lopsided run-pass balance. The Ravens have run more passing than running plays every year of their existence, 192 more in 1996, 203 in 1997, 110 in 1998 and 171 two seasons ago before the Super Bowl champions cut that number to 36 in the regular season.
Baltimore's game plan shined extra-brightly in the postseason with 54 more runs than passes, and it was due in large part to the team's rookie bruiser, Jamal Lewis.
Lewis, a 5-foot-11, 231-pounder in the Emmitt Smith mold, set team rookie and single-season records in 2000 with 1364 yards. He gained over 100 yards in seven different games (including two in the postseason) and averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry as Baltimore eschewed head coach Brian Billick's passing preference and rode a more conservative game plan to the city's fourth NFL championship, its second Super Bowl and first in 30 years.
But all that production -- and, perhaps, a chance to write another championship chapter in Baltimore football history -- went by the wayside last week when guard Mike Flynn and quarterback Elvis Grbac's feet tangled after a snap. Flynn then collided with hard-charging backup defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, who in turn fell into Lewis' left knee.
Lewis, who had suffered similar injuries to his right knee as a Tennessee sophomore, walked off the Ravens' practice field wincing, but nonetheless under his own power. His injury was first diagnosed as a bruise, but a later magnetic-resonance imaging test revealed the ACL tear and MCL sprain.
Since there is no timetable for Lewis' surgery just yet and no chance Lewis will return in 2001, Billick can only maintain his hawk-like focus on defending a Super Bowl title � and finding a new feature back.
"Let's move on," the coach will say at any mention of Lewis. "That's pass�. We are done with that. Jamal, we are sorry he is not with us."
However, the perennial question around the Ravens' backfield is, who will be?