Ravens need to start thinking of alternatives

Despite a pronounced limp and the conspicuous cane, reminders of a recent hip operation, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome hobbled through the NFL combine sessions last week apprising everyone who inquired about his health that he felt fine.

Of course, the hip replacement surgery had been planned for months, and Newsome had been prepared for the recovery process that would follow the procedure. What Newsome wasn't prepared for at the time was the possibility he and the Ravens organization might suddenly require a tailback replacement procedure.

And of the two, the latter could prove to be far more painful, in the long run.

It is an unfair leap, to be sure, from indictment to conviction. The trial of another Ravens star, middle linebacker Ray Lewis, in Atlanta should forever serve as a reminder of that. But in the case of Baltimore tailback Jamal Lewis, indicted Wednesday afternoon on federal drug charges, and less than two months after he completed one of the best single-season rushing performances in league history, Newsome must consider the pragmatic approach and embrace it soon.

While no one in the Ravens' organization wants to even remotely consider a season minus Lewis, who in addition to the federal charges faces possible NFL sanctions under statutes of the substance abuse policy, Newsome can't afford to delay planning the appropriate contingencies in the event of the unthinkable. This is a real-world problem, after all, and Newsome and associates in the Baltimore personnel department must plot out and then ruminate over all potential solutions even before a vacancy in the Ravens' backfield exists.

Conjuring up a list of possible remedies, given that removing Lewis from the offense is akin to ripping out the heart of the otherwise dismal unit, will be no small feat. Not even for a general manager as accomplished as Newsome, ably assisted by personnel director Phil Savage, the tandem that has crafted some of the best draft classes of recent years.

Compliments of the 2003 draft day trade to land quarterback Kyle Boller, the Ravens do not own a first-round pick in '04, and their initial selection on April 24 won't arrive until 50 names are off the board. Recent history has demonstrated it is possible to unearth an exceptional running back in the second round or even lower. Fact is, another tailback who has been in the news a lot lately, Clinton Portis, ironically was chosen with the 51st pick -- yeah, the same slot the Ravens own -- in the 2004 lottery.

Then again, tailbacks who rush for 2,000 yards are a bit rarer after the first round. Of the five men to accomplish that feat, just one, Terrell Davis, wasn't a first-rounder. And so locating a Lewis reincarnation in the personage of any of the second-tier tailbacks available in the draft is anything but a slam-dunk.

Neither is the litany of backs soon available in unrestricted free agency a particularly impressive list. Get past the name of Duce Staley, and maybe that of a resurgent Thomas Jones, and the pickings are dismally slim. The situation isn't much more appetizing on the current Baltimore roster. Chester Taylor is a nice third-down back -- has run well at times against air, when everyone is expecting a pass, and he bursts into the secondary on a draw play -- but has only 96 carries in two seasons. The promising Musa Smith, a third-round pick in 2003, missed much of his rookie campaign because of injuries and finished with just nine rushing attempts.

But somewhere the ever-resourceful Newsome, who has declined to address the Lewis situation with anything more than a prepared statement, has to find a tailback. You hope for the best in the NFL, plan for the worst, and, unless your name is Bill Belichick, lose sleep at night wondering if there is ever a situation in this salary cap and free agency era in which sufficient depth has been assembled.

The Ravens, who have done an estimable job in rebuilding after being forced to tear the club apart only three years ago because of owner Art Modell's cap excesses, have more than $20 million in spending room entering this offseason. But even that kind of cap room means little if there is no viable alternative tailback in whom to invest it.

Beyond his trouble with the Feds, who spent the past 3½ years preparing the case against him, Lewis is once again under the purview now of the NFL's substance abuse policy and will, at some point, face an awkward date with the commissioner. An attorney by trade, Paul Tagliabue has always been mindful (almost to a fault) of due process, and that will be the case again in this circumstance.

Jamal Lewis, though, is a two-time loser by definition. Lewis served a suspension late in the 2001 season -- a league sanction that flew well below the radar, since Lewis had torn an anterior cruciate ligament in training camp that year, and wasn't playing anyway -- and that means he has been a multiple offender. No matter what the courts rule, Lewis will be scrutinized closely by the NFL and the legion of former FBI agents it employs, and he is still at the mercy of Tagliabue's discretionary clout.

Ergo, it would be wise for the Ravens to approach the unknown by plugging in some sort of known commodity at tailback. Even some Baltimore coaches agree.

"You hate to think about what could happen with (Lewis), but we've got to be (prudent) and make sure that we cover our asses here," said one Ravens staffer.

Easier said, of course, than done. Lewis wasn't just the centerpiece of the Ravens' offense in '03; he was the offense. For the NFL's top-rated rushing offense, he accounted for 77.4 percent of the production and 80.9 percent of the carries by running backs. His combined yards from scrimmage represented 46.1 percent of all Ravens real estate, and he touched the ball on 40.9 percent of the club's snaps.

Those will be impossible numbers to replace if Lewis isn't in the lineup. And it could well be that Newsome doesn't even try and, instead, opts for another alternative. Uh, like what, you say? Like perhaps trying to upgrade the Stone Age passing game that Baltimore exhibited in 2003.

Boller, the tangible manifestation of the Ravens' lack of a first-round pick this year, has to improve on his rookie campaign. Toward that end, coach Brian Billick imported former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel to help out. Another upgrade could come at the wide receiver spot. Keyshawn Johnson, currently occupied with trying to sell himself to the Dallas Cowboys, has mentioned Baltimore as a possible new home. And the 49ers, despite now owning the rights to Terrell Owens for three more seasons, still plan to deal their problem-child star in a trade.

Virtually any move Newsome makes can't help but aid a passing game that statistically ranked as the NFL's worst in 2003. And, let's face it, the anemic passing attack had to be addressed this offseason, certainly rated as a Ravens priority, even before Jamal Lewis was indicted. Should the Ravens bump up the aerial side, and have Lewis acquitted of the federal charges, they will be that much more ahead.

Then again, if Lewis is out of the lineup for any appreciable time and the Ravens haven't located a worthy stand-in, then the offense could suffer a limp as notable as the one with which Newsome is attempting to navigate these days.

Around the league

  • One final thought (OK, for now, at least) on the Jamal Lewis situation: Ed Garland, a member of the phalanx of high-profile Atlanta defense attorneys retained by the Ravens' tailback, revealed Wednesday that his client has known of the federal investigation of him for about a year. If that is indeed the case -- and, by vocation alone, Garland is given to some flights of hyperbole -- then a grudging tip of the hat to the Baltimore star for his apparent skills of focus. Watch Kobe Bryant sometime, even during his recent scoring spree, and try to convince someone his game isn't suffering from a natural preoccupation with his off-court difficulties. With federal authorities apparently closing on him quicker than some of the linebackers against whom he played in 2003, Lewis set the single-game rushing record, and came within one more long run of topping Eric Dickerson's single-season mark. Now that, friends, is focus. Either he considered the investigation frivolous or Lewis, as some of his teammates suggested to us, is a very disciplined guy.

  • Lewis had a tough week but, in the big picture, no one's image suffered more over the last few days than that of some agents representing NFL players. Since we've seen a copy of the test prospective agents must pass to earn NFL Players Association certification, it is safe to assume these guys can read. Some of them, alas, just don't read very well. This week alone, Carl and Kevin Poston, the agents for Washington Redskins star linebacker LaVar Arrington, claimed their client was shorted by $6.5 million on the blockbuster he signed in the final week of the regular season. And then Jerome Stanley and Dave Joseph, the agents, respectively, for wide receivers Dennis Northcutt of Cleveland and Terrell Owens of San Francisco, failed to submit proper paperwork for voiding the final three years of their client's contracts. For years, of course, there have been stories of agents who, simply put, were inept. But this year alone, the agent for a top 10 draft choice was apprised by an official from the franchise with which the player was signing that there were errors in the contract that required correction. The agent, who hadn't discovered the errors on his own, never reviewed the corrected contract document. A few years ago, when an AFC team was hiring a new coach, the club official who negotiated the deal offered the coach's agent use of his office to review the contract. The agent replied that he trusted the team official to have everything in order and then told his client to sign the deal. There is a reason that, as noted in this space last week, half the certified agents in the NFL don't have a single client. Most of them are incompetent. As the past week has evidenced, equally inept are some of the agents with a stable-full of clients. A prominent agent with approximately four dozen NFL clients and several players in the NBA as well, told us this week that he and his four associates spend a week before the start of the year, reviewing every page of every contract for every player they represent. "We sit there with our legal pads and note every item we need to address, every date of which we have to be aware, every detail that we have to know about," he said. "That's just the way that you are supposed to do business." Conventional wisdom is that events of this week will further darken the collective reputation of the agent business. It's probably Pollyannaish, but we are hoping the converse is true. Maybe what transpired this week will force players to take a hard look at who is representing them and will actually further the cause of those agents who practice their trade professionally.

  • On the Owens front, the financial fallout from his agents monumental muck-up might not be as catastrophic for him as originally assumed. His current contract, which remains property of San Francisco for now, calls for "T.O." to earn $17.7 million in base salaries over the next three seasons. But the 49ers aren't going to pay that, because they don't want Owens, and will trade him. Any team dealing for Owens -- uh, can you say Philadelphia or Baltimore, folks? -- won't want to assume those base salaries and the annual salary cap charges of $7 million-plus that accompany them and will probably demand a new contract. And if he signs a new deal, Owens is going to want upfront money in the $15 million range. Even if the base salaries in the first couple years of a new contract are at the league minimum, Owens will still probably earn more in three years with a new team than he would have made staying in San Francisco through the 2006 season. The big edge, though, still goes to the 49ers. They now wield the leverage hammer they didn't have until Thursday, when news of the contractual faux pas went public. Instead of getting nothing in return, when Owens walked out the door in free agency, San Francisco now figures to get a package of draft choices in return.

  • The league's dirty little secret that, in a week of turmoil, remained swept under the rug? There is (and we know we say this every year) more tampering going on with pending free agents than at any other time in the history of the current player movement system. It was nearly impossible to sit down to dine at any Indianapolis restaurant last week, during the draft combine, and not bump into an owner engaged in conversation with a player representative about a pending free agent. League officials just seem to think the free agency period doesn't start until Wednesday and, if that's really the mindset, they are being hopelessly naïve. There already are visitations planned for some of the high-profile unrestricted players -- one team, and you can pretty much figure out who it is, has plans for several big-time defenders to be in its complex in the opening days of free agency -- and probably a few contract agreements already in place. There isn't a lot the league can do in such cases to police its own anti-tampering rules. Then again, anything the league does will be more than it has done in most years, when the rules eschewing contact with a player still under contract were unabashedly ignored.

  • Even with Champ Bailey, Chris McAlister and Charles Woodson essentially off the market now because of trades and "franchise" designations, the pool of unrestricted free agent cornerbacks is an impressive one. There are a dozen corners who will got on the market next Wednesday and who started at least eight games in 2003. Nine members of that group started virtually the entire season and figure to be among the most ardently pursued players in what figures to be a slow and somewhat blunted free agent period. Those nine: Fernando Bryant (Jacksonville), Mario Edwards (Dallas), Reggie Howard (Carolina), Ahmed Plummer (San Francisco), Shawn Springs (Seattle), Bobby Taylor (Philadelphia), Fred Thomas (New Orleans), Troy Vincent (Philadelphia) and Antoine Winfield (Buffalo). The buzz at the combine was that Winfield will get a ton of interest despite his lack of physical stature, because he is young, and plays an aggressive style. Edwards is admired by teams willing to pay something more than a modest deal but not prepared to empty the coffers. And there figures to be ample interest in Springs, even though his career has been marred by injuries. Several teams are intrigued by Springs, feeling they can sign him to a deal that protects them against his injury history, but also allows the seven-year veteran to make extra money if he can stay healthy. Bryant has an offer from the Jaguars that he is considering. That in itself is an upset, since only seven months ago his relationship with the franchise was in tatters, and he was telling anyone who would listen that he would not be back in 2004.

  • Perhaps cognizant of the fact it could be hard in free agency to land a deal commensurate to his talents, Oakland tailback Charlie Garner has suddenly softened his stance toward the Raiders, and will consider returning to the franchise in 2004. Only a few weeks ago, Garner and his agent were telling people, including ESPN.com, that the player was ready to buy out the final year of his existing contract and go into the free agent market. Now agent Brian Levy is contending that Garner isn't prepared to write a $400,000 check to guarantee his freedom, and instead will be open to Raiders extension proposals. "We are not trying to force their hand," Levy said. "In the last conversation we had, we said, 'Let's try to work this thing out and keep him in Oakland." Garner, 32, is scheduled for a base salary of $4.227 million for 2004 and the Raiders definitely need to reduce that number and also his salary cap charge. Whether the two sides can come to a mutually accommodating situation before the start of free agency remains dubious, but Garner certainly isn't as hell-bent anymore on departing the Raiders.

  • It merited little more than a single line of agate on the "transactions" page of most sports sections, but the New Orleans Saints' addition of former Detroit Lions wideout Germane Crowell on Thursday could turn out to be a nice deal. It could turn out to be a dud, too, but, in the world of nothing-ventured-nothing-gained, it's a better gamble than most. The former University of Virginia star, a second-round choice in the '98 draft, was on his way to an excellent career when beset by injuries and he didn't play at all in 2002. But for a zero investment, the Saints will get a free look at a big receiver who once possessed big-time skills. If he doesn't work out, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Jim Haslett are none the poorer, that's for sure. In 1999, Crowell had 81 catches, 1,338 yards and seven touchdowns. In the four seasons since, he has 78 receptions, 920 yards and six touchdowns. Odds are that Crowell, even though just 27 years old, won't ever make it back all the way to what he once was in the league. But right now, the Saints are the only team willing to find out, and maybe they will be rewarded for taking a chance.

  • Biggest media excess at the combine: All the headlines blasting erstwhile Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett for not participating in on-field drills. The sainted Eli Manning and the beatific Larry Fitzgerald didn't take part in any of the drills, either, but they did not merit any criticism. No one is defending Clarett, who came across poorly during his media session, and seemed anything but contrite. But to criticize him for not working out, when the usual one-third of the invitees begged off as well, was hardly fair. What's that, you say, Clarett needed to work out because he missed the entire 2003 season? Heck, that is precisely why he was better off doing nothing. Clarett is a doughboy right now and he knows it. He desperately needs the upcoming month he'll spend with New Orleans-based trainer Tom Shaw just to get into a modicum of shape. If he runs well in an April audition for scouts, the league will quickly forgive him, and he'll be chosen in about the second round. If he falls on his face, Clarett will get what he deserves for not staying in shape, a spot in the fourth or fifth round.

  • On our list of players who probably hurt their status a bit at the combine sessions last week, we had one major omission, and he was the ultimate loser overall. For reasons with which he apparently is the only one familiar, South Carolina cornerback Tedric Crawford was a total no-show. Not only was Crawford the only player invited who didn't show up for even his physical examination and interviews, he also failed to phone and offer an explanation for his absence. That's a big-time no-no in the eyes of the scouts, and you can tie a millstone to Crawford's feet now.

  • Punts: Any team seeking a veteran pass protector would be wise to break out some tape of Derrick Deese, released on Thursday by the 49ers. A 12-year veteran, Deese is 33 years old, but still probably has a few good seasons left. He allowed zero sacks over the last two years, has started at every offensive line position during his career, and was released for cap reasons, not based on his '03 performance. ... Add the Chicago Bears to the teams very interested in former first-round bust Thomas Jones, the veteran tailback who resurrected his flagging career this year when the Tampa Bay Bucs inserted him in the starting lineup. The Bucs desperately want to keep Jones and, from what we hear, Dallas coach Bill Parcells would like to sign him, too. ... Houston general manager Charley Casserly remains confident he can deal quarterback Drew Henson before the quarterback goes back into the draft. It appears that Buffalo, Green Bay and perhaps one unidentified team remain very interested in Henson and will likely arrange for individual workouts very soon. ... Talks to keep quarterback Jeff Garcia in San Francisco are not proceeding very well at this point and the odds that he will be released continue to grow. Garcia, in fact, is pretty much disgusted by what he perceives to be a lack of respect for him and, unless the Niners dramatically increase their offer, he is prepared to move on. ... The exit of Vinny Testaverde from the Jets is now a foregone conclusion and, while team officials feel second-year pro Brooks Bollinger might be ready to assume the No. 2 spot behind Chad Pennington, they will continue to peruse the waiver wire in the event a modestly-priced veteran becomes available. ... Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow was reportedly seeking $2,500 from any agent who wanted to interview to represent his son, considered one of the top 10 prospects in the '04 draft. The NFLPA recently dispatched to agents a memo warning against paying such fees for the right to simply meet with a player. ... The league will consider increasing the size of practice squads from the current five players to 6-8 youngsters.

  • The last word: "Well, for openers, it will change my address." -- Maurice Clarett on what the jump to the NFL will mean for him

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.