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8 Upper

Speed Trap

By Tom Scocca | Posted 8/15/2001

This was the week I was going to stop worrying about football injuries and try to take the NFL at face value. It's not fair to the World Champion Baltimore Ravens, after all, to focus just on the stupidity and brutality of the game. The World Champion Baltimore Ravens are successful and talented, and they took steps during the off-season toward becoming interesting too. Their schedule, as I read it, has eight or 10 games that should be worth seeing. For all the whooping after last year's surprise wild-card run to the title, it was a surprise; nobody really knew what the Ravens were doing till they'd done it. It's this year, 2001, that the NFL really begins, week after week, to have to reckon with Baltimore again.

Which is what I was mulling when I went online to check baseball scores and saw the headline "Ravens' Lewis Tears ACL." This was about as useful, newswise, as "Comet Hits Planet"--depending on the specifics, it could have meant anything from apocalypse for the World Champion Baltimore Ravens ("Ray Lewis Tears ACL") to minor curiosity ("Marvin Lewis Tears ACL"). The Sun helped clear things up, with a front-page, above-the-fold headline (backed up by end-of-the-world coverage on the sports page): "Ravens fear Jamal Lewis out for year."

On the Lewis Disaster Scale, with Marvin Lewis having to call defensive plays while riding a Rascal being 1 and Ray Lewis having a career-ending injury being 10, this is at least a 7. Last year, as a rookie, Jamal Lewis did more to keep the Ravens' offense alive than anyone but Matt Stover. He was the prototype of a modern NFL running back: a majestic, powerful runner, the kind of big and agile guy who hits his hole accurately and then, gathering momentum, hits the defender who tries to fill the far end of the hole.

A back like that, running behind a good lineman, is all but unbeatable. The blocking and his speed get him 3 yards to start, and the collision at the end is good for another yard, sometimes 3 or 5 five more. F=ma. Call that play three times in a row and it's a first down. Call it 25 times in a game, and you get 100 yards, 110, 120. By the fourth quarter, the other team's defense looks gut-punched and reluctant. The tackles are tired of grabbing at air; the safeties and linebackers are tired of stepping up and getting clobbered for their trouble.

That's half the story. The other half happened last week. A back like Jamal Lewis is unstoppable--until he stops. A blown knee is not a fluke or a stroke of bad luck. It's what happens to a strong, forthright NFL running back. It's part of the prototype. The two backs Lewis most resembled in his march to the Super Bowl were Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson. Both of them had that ability to chew up the field, the clock, and the defense. And both of them broke down.

Anyone who was predicting a long, productive future for Jamal Lewis just wasn't paying attention. He was too good to last. Almost all of them are. The human body is marvelous and adaptable, but it was not made to simultaneously be speedy and take a pounding. If you succeed at running back--if you keep blasting forward, play after play--you will destroy the body parts that make success possible.

It happens over and over and over and over. Where is Ki-Jana Carter now? Where is Adrian Murrell? Natrone Means? Garrison Hearst? Vaughn Hebron? Some of them are still around, trying to come back, playing OK football. But they've lost the ability to control a game. They've been beaten down into the middle of the bell curve.

Exceptions, exceptions: Emmitt Smith kept his speed for a long while. But he was small and elusive; he didn't always have to take the hit. Barry Sanders flat-ass refused to take the hit--he'd go 15 yards out of his way and 15 more yards back, scrambling east-west, to protect his almighty speed. And he got out while he was still in his prime. Marcus Allen was held hostage on the sidelines at the peak of his career, thanks to byzantine Raiders politics, and so stayed good long past the age limit for backs.

The chief exception, though, was Walter Payton. And Payton was his own case. He was the one man, ever, who could run like that and take the hit and get up every time. He was indestructible, and that's why he's 1,457 yards ahead of anyone else who played the game. Sometimes, when I'm watching another 24-year-old get wheeled out of his career on the stretcher-cart, it seems like I must have invented Walter Payton to soothe my conscience.

All of which says that the loss of Jamal Lewis probably doesn't mean a hell of a lot for your World Champion Baltimore Ravens. Football would go out of business if it did. The NFL pretends it matters, naturally; all around the league, teams are earnestly waiting for their star running backs to return. Philadelphia counts on Duce Staley to bounce back from his crippling foot sprain; Atlanta still pretends Jamal Anderson is just a shade away from recovery; the Packers are warming up Dosey Levens. Heck, the Broncos have Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson--three star backs, if only they could run like they used to.

The real story is that the Ravens were able to scoop up Terry Allen off the scrap heap. Allen was, two knees ago, one of the best running backs in the league. Now he's a spare part, somebody who can get some yards while the team looks for something better. There will always be something better. Until the something better breaks down too.

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