As delirious fans chanted his name and proud teammates offered
congratulations on his setting the NFL single-game rushing
record, Jamal Lewis listened to a soothing voice with a thick
Southern accent on the other end of a phone line. Earnest Byner,
the Baltimore Ravens' director of player development, had
called down from the coaches' booth in the final minutes of the
Ravens' 33-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 14 to
help the running back keep his focus as he finished his
295-yard, two-touchdown day. Lewis listened intently, then
asked a quick question. "Hey, E.B.," he shouted into the phone.
"How does it feel to work with the best back in the league?"
Byner chuckled, recalling that Lewis had asked him the same
question on a sultry afternoon in early June, during a minicamp
practice. Byner, who played 14 NFL seasons, didn't think much
about the moment back then, but we should all understand its
significance now. Jamal Lewis was ready to elevate his game. The
only question was how high he would take it.
Here's how high Lewis has taken it this season: He leads the
league with 1,045 rushing yards, and his 68 yards in a 24-17
victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday helped the Ravens
improve their record to 5-3, best in the AFC North. Lewis is
averaging a gaudy 5.6 yards a carry despite constantly seeing
eight-and nine-man fronts as Baltimore's rookie quarterback, Kyle
Boller, learns the ropes. And Lewis is on pace to finish this
season with 2,090 yards, threatening the NFL single-season record
of 2,105 yards, set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
Lewis won't talk about chasing history, but he acknowledges that
he has already reached one of his personal goals: passing the
1,000-yard mark in eight games. Nor does he see any major
obstacle to continuing his remarkable run. "The big thing I took
away from our game against Cleveland was how well we executed,"
says Lewis, who had predicted a career day against the Browns.
"If we can get that kind of penetration every game, with everyone
blocking downfield, there's no reason we can't do that again. I
feel like I'm in a zone, and I want to stay in it."
The 5'11", 231-pound Lewis has always been talented--he ran for a
team-record 1,364 yards as a rookie, on Baltimore's 2000 Super
Bowl championship team, and for another 1,327 last season after
missing all of 2001 with a torn left ACL--but now he's downright
scary. "There's nobody in the league with a better combination of
size, speed and power," says Tennessee Titans executive vice
president Floyd Reese. "He doesn't use a lot of moves, and he's
not a nifty cut-back type, but he doesn't have to be. Just look
at his yards after initial contact. I imagine he's broken more
tackles than any back in the league."
Lewis's recent success is not just a testament to his strength.
In his first three seasons, he says, "I just ran blind. Now I'm
trusting my line and waiting for things to develop." This season
Lewis has shown greater vision and a deeper understanding of how
defenses try to stop him. He has a better feel for where the
holes will appear as he runs behind a line that averages a
league-high 329.5 pounds per man. "Jamal is constantly asking the
linemen what we're doing in certain situations, and you can tell
he's really trying to understand the blocking schemes," says
Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens' Pro Bowl left tackle. "He's making
sure we're all on the same page, and I can tell you he wasn't
communicating that way even as recently as last year."
For the first time in his career the 24-year-old Lewis wants to
be the leader of Baltimore's offense. He runs the Thursday
afternoon film sessions with the running backs and organizes
Friday night dinners so that he and his backfield mates can get
to know one another better. He also warns younger backs, such as
Musa Smith and Chester Taylor, about the dangers of life in the
NFL's fast lane. As an example Lewis points to his own four-game
suspension in 2001 for a violation of the league's policy on
substance and alcohol abuse.
"It was time for someone to step up on offense," Lewis says.
"I've always been the young guy around here, and I didn't say
much because I didn't feel it was my place. Now I notice that if
I don't have a good day at practice, the offense doesn't have a
good day. If I'm clicking, everything else starts to click. I'm
seeing that if I play well and do the right things, people will
That was no easy task for Lewis. He has spent most of his life in
the shadows of others. When he was a standout senior running back
at Douglass High in Atlanta, in 1996, locals dubbed him Little
John, a reference to his older brother, a speedy runner who had
excited those same fans six years earlier. Jamal didn't mind. He
idolized Bo Jackson, but he worshiped John. Jamal studied game
film of his brother, and he spent most of his middle-school years
working out with him before John left to play football at
Carson-Newman. The brothers chopped wood together to get stronger
and repeatedly raced up their steep driveway to get faster.
One thing John didn't do was push Jamal to be more outgoing. John
was naturally gregarious, but Jamal opened up only around certain
friends. He let his play on the field do his talking, running for
2,677 yards at Tennessee despite missing most of his sophomore
season with a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee.
He left after his junior year, and Baltimore took him with the
fifth pick in the 2000 draft, making him the first running back
chosen. Skeptics questioned his durability--"One guy called it
the worst move in the history of the draft," Lewis says--but the
Ravens loved his size and his 4.37 speed in the 40.
Baltimore offered a nurturing environment. Fullback Sam Gash and
running back Priest Holmes showed Lewis the finer points of film
study. Lewis trained in the off-season with tight end Shannon
Sharpe. And even after Lewis took Holmes's starting job early in
2000, Holmes wished the rookie well and continued to teach him
about defensive fronts and reading blocks. But as the title team
was gutted in a salary-cap purge, new leaders had to emerge. On
talent alone, Lewis was an obvious candidate.
He had spent the previous two training camps rooming with All-Pro
linebacker Ray Lewis. Behind closed doors Jamal would boast about
his skills and talk about his frustration over not being
recognized as an elite back. Ray often told him to be more vocal.
"Jamal got comfortable with being in the backseat around here,"
says Ray. "He has the same energy as me, but he wouldn't display
it. I'd tell him to show the offense that side of himself,
because they would see him as a leader. He's learning he
shouldn't hide his charisma. His teammates need that."
So Jamal went to work. Two weeks after the end of last season, he
started training in Atlanta. He worked on the treadmill to
lengthen his stride and maintain his speed on long runs. He boxed
to increase his stamina and explosiveness. He even tried yoga,
although he quips that "those poses are pretty hard on a big
guy." He pored over tape of his two healthy NFL seasons, looking
for flaws in his game. "I'd had two 1,300-yard seasons, but I
really didn't get better," says Lewis. "I wanted to study the
defenses and see how I could improve."
During a phone conversation last March with Ravens executive vice
president Ozzie Newsome, Lewis said he wanted to lead the league
in rushing, but Newsome advised him to slow down. "I told him if
he stayed healthy for a second straight year, he would make a
major contribution," Newsome says. "I just wanted him to redefine
his goals and take smaller steps."
Lewis, however, was ready to make a huge leap. He reduced his
body fat from 12% to 7%. "His speed and quickness immediately
jumped out at you in training camp," Baltimore coach Brian
Billick says. The change in Lewis's body language was just as
noteworthy. Byner had never seen the intensity that showed in
Lewis's eyes before the Ravens' season-opening loss to the
Pittsburgh Steelers. Because the team fell behind early that day,
Lewis carried only 15 times, for 69 yards. Since then he has
averaged 23.4 carries. "I'd rather not have Jamal carry the ball
400 times," says Billick, "but if he has to carry it 400 times
for us to win games, that's what he'll do."
Despite nursing a mildly bruised right shoulder, Lewis doesn't
worry about wear and tear. He wants the running game to carry the
offense because he believes it will create more opportunities for
Boller and the passing game. "I've trained myself for a 16-week
beating," Lewis says. "I never knew how big the off-season was,
but I'm fresh. I can carry the load."
Most important, Lewis believes this is his time. That's why he
spent the Ravens' bye week in early October training every day in
Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta. It's why he spends 45 minutes on
his elliptical trainer three nights a week at 10 o'clock while
drinking a protein shake, convinced that no other back is working
so late to gain an edge.
After his record-setting day against the Browns, Lewis gave away
his shoes, visor, wristbands, anything that friends wanted as
keepsakes. A Ravens publicist implored him to keep something for
himself, but Lewis wasn't interested in dwelling on that day. He
has much more he wants to accomplish. He hasn't even watched the
tape of his finest day in football. "I was done with that game
once the next week started," Lewis says. "As far as I'm
concerned, there are plenty more records to be broken."
Run for The Record
Jamal Lewis is on pace to become the fifth player in NFL history
to run for 2,000 yards in a season. Halfway through this season
he has rushed for more yards than Eric Dickerson had at the same
point during his record-setting year.
PLAYER, TEAM SEASON EIGHT GAMES TOTAL
ERIC DICKERSON, L.A. RAMS 1984 914 2,105
JAMAL LEWIS, RAVENS 2003 1,045 2,090*
BARRY SANDERS, LIONS 1997 893 2,053
TERRELL DAVIS, BRONCOS 1998 1,150 2,008
O.J. SIMPSON, BILLS 1973(+) 1,104 2,003
*Projected (+)14-game season
"I've trained myself FOR A 16-WEEK BEATING. I never knew how
big the off-season was, but I'm fresh. I can carry the load."