Struggling J. Lewis to rotate with Taylor

OWINGS MILLS -- Jamal Lewis is no longer the centerpiece of the Ravens' once-dominant running game, and his future in Baltimore is in doubt. In a major acknowledgment of the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year's recurring struggles and Chester Taylor's superior production, the running back tandem will share the football in a rotation based on which impending unrestricted free agent is considered to have the hot hand. Right now, that would likely be tilted toward Taylor.

Whether it's because he underwent right ankle surgery in February that kept him out for most of the preseason, or four months of incarceration in a federal prison and two months in a halfway house for pleading guilty to a cocaine conspiracy charge, this isn't the same Lewis who gained 2,066 yards two seasons ago.

"I wish I could put my finger on it," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I believe he's healthy, he's running hard. There's plenty of want there. Why we haven't gotten that break a tackle and get the big run, I'm sure he's scratching his head as much as we are.

"All the things we've commented on before, the offseason, the rehab, the training camp, the whole nine yards, yeah, they are factors."

With Lewis averaging only 3.0 yards per carry for 508 yards on 172 carries and on pace for a career-low 812 yards, the Ravens (3-7) will divide his playing time with Taylor.

"I have no control over it," said Lewis, who's earning $3.58 million in the final year of a six-year, $35.3 million contract.

Taylor has gained 300 yards on 105 less carries than Lewis and is averaging 4.5 per carry. The Ravens matched the Cleveland Browns' $3 million offer sheet to retain Taylor during the offseason.

During a 16-13 overtime win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers, that investment paid dividends as Taylor gained 59 yards on a season-high 19 carries. He caught four passes for 26 yards and registered 186 all-purpose yards.

Lewis, meanwhile, was limited to 28 yards on 13 carries and has yet to eclipse 100 yards all season.

"Chester seemed to get into a pretty good rhythm," Billick said. "We're going to use both backs because right now that's the most productive angle for us to take."

Lewis' timing appears to be off. His explosiveness and tackle-breaking ability haven't approached his 2003 Pro Bowl level. He looks indecisive in committing to which direction to hit the hole and has scored only one touchdown. One defender often brings Lewis down.

Lewis was booed following a second-quarter fumble, and Taylor was cheered loudly whenever he stepped on the field.

Lewis admitted earlier this fall that his contract status weighs heavily on his mind and complained that the organization reneged on a promise to extend his contract.

When asked if he thinks he'll be retained, Lewis replied: "This thing is bigger than Jamal Lewis. At this point, right now, I don't know."

At 5-foot-9, 213 pounds, Taylor isn't as bulky as the 245-pound Lewis. However, he's actually breaking tackles and dragging defenders after initial contact. Plus, Taylor has caught 30 passes out of the backfield for 207 yards and a touchdown.

The Ravens maintain that winning games is their top concern while pointing out that they're clearly in an evaluation mode since they are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs.

"The only time to truly evaluate is in a game," Billick said. "We have six more opportunities to get some great evaluation done.

"We've got two good backs. We'll use both backs in whatever combination we think is necessary to A) win the game always and B) to give them both a chance to hopefully get a rhythm."

The Ravens' options aren't limited to awarding a new contract to Taylor or Lewis.

They could designate either player with the franchise tag, meaning they would have to pay their starter roughly $6.5 million in 2006. Or they could pursue elite free agent backs such as Indianapolis' Edgerrin James or Seattle's Shaun Alexander, or draft a running back.

"I have no doubt that Chester can be an every-down back," Billick said. "I don't need to know any more about Chester Taylor to know that he is an outstanding back and can be a lead back for a team.

"I know that Jamal Lewis has been and will be a great lead back for any team regardless of what he's going through right now. This evaluation as to where they're at and what that looks like over the next six weeks, we may see some differences."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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