When Cleveland Browns Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown retired at the ripe young age of 29 in 1965, he took a lot of heat.
He was at the top of his game, having led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons, including the last three. Just two years before, in 1963, he had reached the Mt. Everest of rushing totals at the time, the staggering mark of 1,863 yards.
So why give it all up?
Brown simply had other things he wanted to do with his life, such as make movies. He had gotten out of the game what he wanted individually – he finished as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher by a mile – and collectively – the Browns won the league championship in 1964 with an improbable victory over the Baltimore Colts. Plus he was healthy. And unless he wanted to try out for the part of the limping Grandpa (Walter Brennan) in “The Real McCoys,” the fact Brown had all his faculties about him enabled him to become one of the first African American action stars.
So many other sports icons, including many boxers such as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, and also some in baseball such as Willie Mays and even Babe Ruth, have tarnished their legend by hanging on for too long, looking feeble and mortal at the end.
With that in mind, then, we look at the retirement on Wednesday of running back Jamal Lewis. In his third year with the Browns after seven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, he announced recently that he would be retiring at the end of the 2009 campaign. But that got moved up by five games when Lewis came down with what was described by the Browns as post-concussion syndrome. Head coach Eric Mangini refuses to disclose any specifics.
So be it. But the fact of the matter is that Lewis was just a shadow of himself this season anyway with 143 carries for 500 yards (a 3.5 yards-per-carry average) and no touchdowns. His longest run was just 18 yards.
He had indeed lost a couple of steps, and the second gear he always had when he got through the front seven and broke into the secondary, now had a governor on the accelerator.
But part of it, too, is that he was playing for a team that may be the worst in Browns history, standing just 1-10 and with a six-game losing streak. The offense is on pace to set not only some team records for futility, but maybe even some NFL marks as well. The passing attack has been especially bad, and without a consistent downfield threat to open up the defense, the box has been filled with so many defenders that it looks like a human chain, thus making it almost impossible to find room to run.
Whatever you want to point the finger at – and how much – as the cause, this is not the way Lewis wanted to go out, playing on a team headed nowhere fast and on his way himself to the lowest rushing total of his 10-year career.
But when evaluating Lewis’ worthiness for the Hall of Fame, you can throw out much of this season. It was clear from the start that he and Mangini – and maybe even offensive coordinator Brian Daboll as well – weren’t on the same page on a variety of issues, and as a result Lewis didn’t want to be in Cleveland.
After being cut by the Ravens in a salary cap move in the winter of 2007, he had signed a one-year get-to-know-you contract with the Browns at the request of then general manager Phil Savage, whom he had known at Baltimore. Savage wanted him to be the power back the Browns so desperately needed to compete in the AFC North. When Savage re-signed Lewis to a three-year deal after that season, the GM thought the back might really help what everybody thought was going to be a great team in 2008, get over the hump and maybe – just maybe – make it into the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
What Lewis did not sign up for, though, is what happened in the 2008 season and immediately after, when Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel were both fired following a shockingly disappointing 4-12 finish, signaling the hiring of Mangini, who didn’t bring Lewis in and thus had no ties to him since the University of Tennessee product wasn’t his guy.
Still, what needs to be pointed out about that 2008 season and Lewis’ performance, is that he rushed for 1,002 yards. That might not sound like much – and maybe it isn’t, especially since he averaged a … well, very average 3.6 yards per carry – but that Browns team struggled to score points, too, not getting an offensive touchdown in the final six games. After their first three quarterbacks, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and Ken Dorsey, all were lost for the season due to injuries, the Browns were signing passers – and players at other positions on offense – off the street just to finish the season.
|Before joining them, Lewis dominated the Browns as a member of the Ravens|
Combined, Browns quarterbacks that year completed just 48.8 percent of their passes, one of the worst marks in team history, for but 11 TDs with 20 interceptions for a miserable 54.6 passer rating. So as much as defenders have crowded the box this season, they did it even more so in 2008 when Browns quarterbacks at the very end of the year had to wear name tags so their teammates would know who they were.
With Bruce Gradkowski, playing nothing like he is for the Oakland Raiders this year, completing just 5-of-16 passes for 18 yards and two interceptions for a 1.0 rating, the Browns lost 31-0 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the finale. Yet Lewis managed to rush for 94 yards in 23 carries, a 4.1 average, against the top-ranked defense in the NFL to edge over the 1,000-yard mark.
In terms of his HOF candidacy, that says it all, as does the fact that Lewis played without a real productive quarterback for all but two of the nine seasons he was on the field (he missed all of 2001 with a knee injury). He wasn’t just part of the offense in those passing-less years. He was the offense, excelling despite the fact he had no passing game to support him.
In his rookie season with the Ravens in 2000 after they drafted Lewis at No. 5 overall, Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer combined to throw for 20 TDs with 19 interceptions for a 72.7 rating. They went five weeks in a row without scoring a TD. Yet Lewis rushed for 1,364 yards and, along with one of the best defenses in the history of the league, carried the transplanted Browns franchise to its first Super Bowl appearance – and a resounding 34-7 victory over the New York Giants
In 2002, the combined numbers of Jeff Blake and Chris Redman were a little better – 20 TDs with 14 picks for a 76.5 rating – but they weren’t making anyone in Baltimore forget John Unitas. As such, the Ravens were just 7-9, but Lewis sparkled again with 1,327 yards.
In 2003, the passing game slipped back, as Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright and Redman had 16 TDs with 19 interceptions for a 64.7 rating. But the Ravens went 10-6 and won the AFC North crown as Lewis had a season for the ages, rushing for 2,066 yards, the second-most in league history. He set an NFL mark (since broken) with 295 yards against Browns, and later in the year got 205 against them. The 500 combined yards are the most ever in the NFL by any back against a team in a single season. He also rushed for 14 scores.
In 2004, Boller had 13 TDs with 11 picks for a 70.7 rating. With teams doing everything they could to stop him at all costs, he went over the 1,000-yard mark again at 1,006 and rushed for seven TDs. The Ravens used that to go 9-7.
In 2005, Boller and Wright threw for 17 TDs with 21 picks for a 71.3 rating. Lewis failed to hit 1,000 for the only time in his career over a full season with 906 yards. With Lewis down and the passing game not there to pick them up, the Ravens staggered to a 6-10 finish, their worst when the back was with them.
In 2006, the Ravens had their best season passing-wise with Lewis on the team when the late Steve McNair, with Boller doing some cameo work, threw for 21 scores with 14 picks for an 84.6 rating. They completed 62.6 percent of their passes and had 3,535 passing yards, the second-largest total in Ravens history. Lewis got back up to 1,132 yards and the Ravens went 13-3.
The only other season in which Lewis had good help from the passing game, was 2007 when he arrived in Cleveland. Anderson came out of absolutely nowhere to be the first Browns quarterback in 20 years to make the Pro Bowl when he threw for 29 TDs, tied for the second-most in team history, and 3,787 yards, the fifth-most in club annals, with 19 interceptions for an 82.5 rating. The Browns failed to make the playoffs, losing out on a tie-breaker to the Tennessee Titans for the final wild-card spot, but they went 10-6, their best mark since 1994, and Lewis, with 1,304 yards, had the seventh-best total in Browns history and the most for anyone not named Jim Brown.
Then last year, when he added the 1,002, he became the first Browns runner in over a quarter-century – since Mike Pruitt did it three times in a row from 1979-81 -- to put together consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
For the most part, this season notwithstanding, Lewis wasn’t dissuaded during his career by being stuck on bad teams overall, or teams that looked at the passing game with the same disdain as stubborn single-wing clubs 60 years ago when the T-formation was introduced. He played like a winner, even if those squads didn’t.
And when he was on good clubs, especially ones that passed the ball as well as he ran it, he elevated his game and made those teams even better.
Thus, Lewis was consistent. In a tough, hard-nosed, division, first the AFC Central and then its successor, the AFC North, Lewis was a tough, hard-nosed runner who brought his lunch pail each and every day.
Certainly, the way he tailed off statistically this year – going out with a whimper and not a roar -- will hurt him, as will the fact he threw barbs at Mangini twice, one time saying the club lacks chemistry and an overall plan, and later claiming that the Browns practice too long and hard and have nothing left for the games.
An even bigger black mark against him will be the four months he spent in prison on drug-related charges while with the Ravens. That’s worse than aging legs, or criticizing the coach.
But the HOF is all about a candidate’s full body of work, not just bits and pieces, like selecting what you want, and ignoring what you don’t want, as you work your way down a cafeteria line.
In that way, then, Jamal Lewis served up enough palatable items for HOF voters to chew on, and is deserving to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, probably not on the first ballot after waiting the mandatory five years following his retirement, but definitely soon thereafter.
And, by the way, we should have known long ago – way before he announced it -- that the end was coming for Lewis this season, for on Aug. 26, he turned 30, that magical age at which running backs begin to age in dog years and their skills erode correspondingly.
So in avoiding all that, like he did would-be tacklers for nine seasons, Jim Brown really knew what he was doing back in the day, being way ahead of the curve – again – when it came to knowing the game and how he fit in, didn’t he?