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THE CHASE IS ON 2,105 Yards
Jeffri Chadiha
November 10, 2003
The Ravens' Jamal Lewis, with a new maturity and sense of purpose, is leading the NFL in rushing—and stalking the single-season record
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November 10, 2003

The Chase Is On 2,105 Yards

The Ravens' Jamal Lewis, with a new maturity and sense of purpose, is leading the NFL in rushing—and stalking the single-season record

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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

YARDS/EIGHT GAMES

SEASON 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

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 follow me."

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.

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