Monday September 15th, 2003

First off, let's be clear about something as we continue to revel in the significant and satisfying slice of NFL history that Jamal Lewis laid on us and the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore on Sunday.

I love a good story as much as the next scribe. No matter what they say, reporters always root for the best angle, and I was in the press box at M&T Bank Stadium hoping like heck that Lewis had enough juice left in his powerful legs in the second half to chase down Corey Dillon's three-year-old single-game NFL rushing record.

And why on earth not? I had chosen to cover the Browns at Ravens in Week 2 because I figured the battle of winless and newly coronated starting quarterbacks -- Kyle Boller and Kelly Holcomb -- had to produce a juicy storyline one way or another. Uh, wrong. Both quarterbacks fell flat Sunday, but that's OK, because Lewis stepped forward and saved the day in historic fashion, ripping off a record 295 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 30 carries in the Ravens' 33-13 home-opening win.

Even better, if that's scarcely possible, there was all this delicious postgame buzz of how Lewis had predicted he would break the NFL rushing record in a mid-week trash-talking phone session with Browns linebacker Andra Davis.

My first reaction? Be still my beating heart. It was the room-service angle from heaven. A story too good to be true.

And therein lies the rub. Did Lewis really "call his shot?'' How much of his and Davis' playful phone conversation, once relayed to other members of the Browns, got lost in the translation? And how much did the media's obvious desire for the "called shot'' angle to be true influence how the anecdote dominated the Lewis coverage?

Another quick disclaimer: None of this debate should in any way diminish Lewis' remarkable feat. He made history against Cleveland, whether or not he predicted exactly what kind of history he was going to make. I'm convinced he did call his shot and then deliver, but it was not the shot everyone wants to believe he called.

I'm beginning to see how Babe Ruth's famous 1932 World Series "called shot'' home run against the Cubs has remained shrouded in mystery for 71 years. Some times we see and hear what we want to hear. And if something gets repeated enough it becomes legend. Whether it happened that way or not.

If you were watching ESPN's SportsCenter or NFL Prime Time on Sunday night, as the Lewis highlights played on an endless loop and the talking heads went on and on about the prediction, you know exactly what I mean.

Lewis' "called shot'' had its origins in a Saturday morning story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the article, Browns safety Earl Little, a second-hand source in this case, said Lewis talked some trash on the phone with one of Cleveland's defenders (presumably Davis) this week, firing up the Browns' defense.

"One of my teammates has a friend on their team,'' Little said. "[The Ravens player] called his boy Jamal and put him on a three-way with one of our teammates. He actually told my teammate he was going to run over us and that he was going to break the NFL rushing record.''

Either Little or the reporter got things a little mixed up from the start. According to Lewis, the three-way conversation Thursday night was between him and Davis, and a mutual friend, Robert Cromartie, a former University of Florida cornerback who was a high school teammate of Lewis in Atlanta, and a collegiate teammate of Davis with the Gators. But in the grand scheme of things, that mix-up is inconsequential.

More importantly, did Lewis specifically boast that he was going to break the NFL single-game rushing record against the Browns? Is he Nostradamus or not?

In his postgame news conference, Lewis was directly asked if he predicted breaking Dillon's record of 278 rushing yards, set in October 2000 against Denver? Here verbatim is what he said:

"There was a little phone call, from Andra Davis, and he told me he wanted me to get the ball 30 times. And I told him if I got the ball 30 times, it was going to be a career day. I'm not going to say I predicted it, but it was lucky. I lucked up and got it.''

Later in the Ravens' locker room, Lewis reiterated to a handful of reporters that he had only predicted a career-best day and never mentioned Dillon's record.

According to the Plain Dealer, here's what Davis said of Lewis' big game: "It's crazy. In our whole life, you wouldn't expect to give up nothing like that.'' No mention was made of Lewis predicting and then delivering a league rushing record.

So, did Lewis ever really utter the prediction that has already become an irresistible part of NFL lore? Or did he merely foresee breaking his personal record of 187 yards in a game, accomplished twice, in 2000 and 2002?

He accurately called that shot, and verified it after the game. But as for the "called shot'' that has already been accepted as true, either Lewis toned down his story when he met with the media not even 10 minutes after the game, or "career day'' somehow got transformed into "NFL single-game rushing record'' in the mind of at least one Browns defender.

To recap, the two principles involved in the conversation did not mention anything about predicting the NFL single-game rushing record would fall. Little, who got his information indirectly, heard a gauntlet of some sort being thrown down by Lewis and reacted.

What's that they say about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story?

In the Saturday Plain Dealer story, one pertinent passage noted that there could have been something lost in the translation from Davis to Little and beyond in the Cleveland locker room: "By the time the story flew through the rest of the Browns defense, it went like this: Lewis said he was going to run all over the Browns and break the NFL single-game rushing record.'' That sounds like your classic out-of-control rumor to me.

I'm not entirely convinced, knowing what I know of Lewis, that if asked he would have even known who held the league's single-game rushing record before Sunday's game. Maybe he knew Dillon went for 278, and maybe he didn't.

Like any athlete who gives as many interviews as Lewis, he's capable of giving two pretty different answers to the same question. I asked him in the news conference if he regretted getting so close to 300 yards without reaching that magic number: "Nah,'' he said. "On a day like [Sunday], I can't regret anything. It was beautiful and I'm going to remember it for a long time.''

Later, in the locker room, Lewis had a slightly different take when asked about the 300-yard mark: "It was on my mind,'' he said. "I wanted it. The line wanted it. I think this is like you said, it's one for the books.''

That's one statement no one can quibble with. Even if those history books wind up telling the somewhat dubious story of Lewis and his "called shot'' NFL rushing record against Cleveland for another 71 years or so.

"It was like Babe Ruth pointing to the fence before the home run,'' said Ravens head coach Brian Billick, getting into the spirit of things in a postgame interview with the Baltimore Sun.

Maybe entirely too much like it.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.