Running back Jamal Lewis will be enshrined into the Ravens Ring of Honor, presented by Smyth Jewelers, at halftime of Thursday night games. He joins running back Earnest Byner (2001), Johnny Unitas and the Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts (2002), Art Modell (2003), defensive end Michael McCrary (2004), linebacker Peter Boulware (2006), tackle Jonathan Ogden (2008) and kicker Matt Stover (2011).
The Ravens' team image that relies on a strong defense and a fierce rushing game didn't just appear out of nowhere. It crystallized when Baltimore won the Super Bowl in January 2001 and continued to pile up playoff appearances with that helmet-pounding playing style.
A pair of players with the same last name embodied the Ravens' physical approach to football. On defense, it was Ray Lewis, the bruising middle linebacker who roamed the field jarring blows. On offense, it was Jamal Lewis, a young running back with thick legs and squared-off shoulders who punished defenders as he careened into the secondary.
"A force to be reckoned with," former Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick called him.
A rookie on the Ravens Super Bowl-winning team, Jamal Lewis rolled up more than four miles of rushing yardage in six seasons in Baltimore – 7,801 yards, to be exact, with the majority coming after Lewis absorbed the first hit on plays and kept churning. He remains the franchise's all-time rushing leader by a wide margin, and his induction into the Ravens Ring of Honor is a fitting testament to his Baltimore career.
"There's nobody in the league with a better combination of size, speed and power," said Floyd Reese, general manager of the Tennessee Titans, when Lewis was in his prime in 2003. "He doesn't use a lot of moves, but he doesn't have to. I imagine he's broken more tackles than anyone in the league."
It's hard to remember now, but the Ravens were pass-happy on offense in their first years; their quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, set single-season franchise records for attempts, completions and yardage that still stand. Their running game featured Priest Holmes, a nimble darter who surpassed the thousand-yard barrier in 1998.
Holmes was effective enough that some experts initially wondered why the Ravens used the fifth-overall pick in the 2000 draft to select Lewis, who had rushed for 2,677 yards in three seasons at the University of Tennessee. But their rationale quickly became clear. Running over defenders rather than around them, Lewis beat out Holmes to become the starting running back by midseason.
"The key to drafting Jamal was that he was a tackle breaker," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager and executive vice president. "Everybody in our division, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Jacksonville; they all had very good defenses, and we needed someone that was going to be able to break some tackles. Priest was our running back at that time, and we felt in order for us to grow as an offense, if we could get someone who could be a tackle-breaker and move the pile, that would be very beneficial for us."
As the 2000 season unfolded, the Ravens suffered an offensive meltdown at midseason, failing to score a touchdown in five-straight games. While the coaches switched quarterbacks and sought solutions for the ailing passing game, Lewis emerged as the unit's focal point, its most dependably productive player.
"What we got was not only a tackle-breaker in Jamal, we got a guy that could finish the run," Newsome said. "With the speed that he had, and once he got into the secondary, people did not want to tackle Jamal."
Once the offense snapped out of its funk in 2000, the Ravens went on a roll down the stretch, with Lewis leading the way on offense. He surpassed 100 yards in four of the team's last seven regular-season games and then picked up over 300 yards on the ground, including 102 in the Super Bowl, as the Ravens rolled through four playoff games to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
"I think that was probably my most memorable season," Lewis said recently. "Just knowing how our backs were against the wall and how everybody pulled together, how we played as a team, that's what you do it for. That's how Super Bowls are won."
The Ravens' image as menacing bruisers on both sides of the ball was set, with Lewis serving as a crucial element.
He was unable to help the team try to defend its title after he suffered a knee injury in training camp just six months after the Super Bowl. The Ravens wound up losing in the playoffs later that season.
"I think we won a Super Bowl in 2000 because we had Jamal Lewis, and I think the biggest reason why we didn't win it in 2001 is because Jamal got hurt," Newsome said. "If we would have had Jamal, we would not have had to put more pressure on [quarterback] Elvis Grbac. We would have been able to still have a balanced offense. When Jamal was not there because of the ACL tear in his leg, it forced a change in our offensive scheme. So I think if we would have had Jamal, we could have won back-to-back Super Bowls."
Lewis returned in 2002, running harder than ever. A year later, he reached his career pinnacle in 2003 with a season for the ages. He rushed for 295 yards in an early-season game against the Cleveland Browns, setting an NFL record (that was broken in 2007 by Adrian Peterson's 296-yard output), and went on to pile up 2,066 rushing yards – still the second-highest, single-season total in NFL history. Not surprisingly, the Associated Press named Jamal the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year.
Lewis would remain the No. 1 back in Baltimore for three more seasons, and he never stopped producing, surpassing the thousand-yard barrier in 2004 and 2006. A three-year run in Cleveland constituted the second act of a career in which Lewis totaled 12,486 yards from scrimmage and 62 touchdowns. He retired after the 2009 season.
"Ever since high school, middle school, even before that, that was pretty much my style – run you over rather than run around you. My dad always told me: 'Be the hitter,'" Lewis said. "That's kind of what was always instilled in my work ethic and how I ran the ball. It's more of an intimidation factor also. I am not a big talker, so I kind of liked to lead by example and gain respect by how I played the game. I think I did that.
"It feels good [now] to hear a guy say you were tough to play against. Being able to get those tough yards and go through a four-minute offense at the end of the game and grind it out and just not be stopped, it was a great feeling."