Jamal Lewis marching toward 2,000 yards

OWINGS MILLS – Jamal Lewis' blockbuster season will require a dashing final act in order for him to join an elite club. The Baltimore Ravens' bruising running back already leads the league in rushing, shattering the single-game NFL mark against the Cleveland Browns this fall. Besides winning the AFC North title and advancing into the playoffs, the Ravens' blockers would relish nothing more than to see Lewis sprint, steamroll and stutter-step toward the rarified air of 2,000 rushing yards.

"To be a part of something special like that is something I would never forget," offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "As linemen, we don't get a lot of recognition and Jamal is capable of this. To be a part of history is something we would be very proud to be a part of." 

With three games remaining in the regular season, Lewis has rushed for 1,622 yards. His current pace of 124.7 yards per contest projects him to a season total of 1,996 yards. Lewis needs 378 more yards to reach the 2,000 plateau, which means he will have to average at least 126 yards against the Oakland Raiders, Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a benchmark achieved previously by only four other runners: Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis and O.J. Simpson. 

Dickerson's single-season NFL rushing record of 2,105 yards that he established in 1984 with the Los Angeles Rams appears relatively safe. Lewis would need to average 161 yards the rest of the way just to tie Dickerson. Yet, the 5-foot-11, 245-pound Lewis does have a legitimate shot at 2,000 yards. "It crosses your mind, but you know that is up to the linemen," said Lewis, who rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries against the Cincinnati Bengals. "I am just going to run the football. I think they are more anxious to get that than I am. "As long as they take care of things up front, it is attainable. I would love to get it for them." 

There are several reasons why Lewis' optimism isn't unfounded. The Raiders (3-10) rank 31st against the run, allowing 149.4 rushing yards per contest. Oakland basically laid down in a 27-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving up 106 yards to Jerome Bettis. Plus, the Raiders are feuding with coach Bill Callahan after he labeled them the dumbest team in America. "It's the ultimate challenge," Callahan said. "It's the best running back and line coming into your house. We have to confront the best running attack in football." 

The Ravens feature the heaviest offensive line in football, averaging 329.5 pounds. And Lewis' shoulder no longer aches that much. He has resumed lifting weights, although he does have a nagging sprained wrist. "I hang out with Jamal to bond with him," said offensive tackle Orlando Brown, a 6-foot-7, 365-pounder who plays opposite massive All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden. "This is a tough guy we love blocking for. He's trucking people. If anyone's going to rush for 2,000 yards, it's him. I think he's going to do it." 

Offensive line coach Jim Colletto is cautious about discussing the 2,000-yard mark. He doesn't want the pursuit to become a distraction to the football team. "You've got to be careful," Colletto said. "I'm rooting for Jamal. But if they start drifting off instead of focusing on winning the next three games, then that's a mistake." Regardless of statistics or whether Lewis garners his first Pro Bowl invitation, he's hatching a plan to reward his blockers with gifts. "I don't know what yet, but I am going to keep them hungry and keep them waiting," he said. 

Lewis is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has scored 11 touchdowns this season. He gained 295 yards Sept. 14 against the Browns. Dickerson high-stepped for an average of 131.5 yards per game in 1984. Sanders juked defenders for 2,053 yards in 1997, an average of 128.8 yards. A year later, Davis bulled ahead for 2,008 yards, a clip of 125.5 yards. Simpson was the first to rush for 2,000 yards. He gained 2,003 in 1973 with the Buffalo Bills. He averaged 143 yards during the era of the 14-game season. "I see similar qualities in Jamal that I saw in the other great backs from the past that put up those big numbers," said James Harris, the Jacksonville Jaguars' vice president of player personnel. "He's definitely a special runner." 

Ravens coach Brian Billick is hardly shy about relying heavily upon his running game and Cleveland is left on the schedule. Could Lewis actually eclipse Dickerson's old mark? "I think it means more to the organization and coach Billick because I think he and everybody else would love to see me hit that mark," Lewis said. The former first-round draft pick has posted nine 100-yard rushing performances this fall. The former University of Tennessee star has gained some momentum as an MVP candidate behind Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. "It's not up to me where the votes go," Lewis said. "The only thing I can do is do my job, make them consider me and kind of shake it up a little bit." 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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