-- The questions have followed Jamal Lewis throughout the first two months of the NFL season, as the Baltimore Ravensrunning back has struggled to gain rushing yards. Why is Lewis, who is two years removed from one of the most productive seasons in history for a running back, averaging 2.9 yards per carry, well under his career average of 4.7 yards?
Is it because of his offseason in which he spent four months in a federal prison and two months in a halfway house as part of a plea agreement on federal drug charges? Is it his ankle, which he injured last season and had surgically repaired in January? Or is it the fact that he is in the final year of his initial six-year contract, and he's seeking the security of a long-term deal?
Lewis has grown tired of the questions, and the frustration -- with his production and with his contract situation -- bubbled over Thursday afternoon.
"It doesn't get into your preparation," said Lewis, who ran for 2,066 yards -- the second-highest total in NFL history -- in 2003. "But it does sink into the back of your mind, when you're busting your tail for this organization. Next year, who knows where you might be?"
Lewis, the fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft, is due to make nearly $3.6 million this season. He is off to the worst start of his career; he has yet to break 100 yards in a game this season (the longest such drought of his career), and he has a total of 326 yards on 113 carries.
Baltimore Coach Brian Billick has said throughout the season he does not believe Lewis's contract status has affected his play on the field, and he reiterated that point Thursday, adding a quarter of the Ravens will become free agents following the season.
"They all want different things out of the season," Billick said. "Jamal is no different in that regard. Is it altering the way he's approaching the game? Absolutely not. . . . He's too professional. He wants too much. He knows he's going to be here."
Former Baltimore defensive end Michael McCrary, Lewis's teammate for three seasons, called into a Baltimore radio talk show Sunday night and suggested that 2003 NFL offensive player of the year wasn't running as well because the Ravens broke a promise to Lewis about a contract extension prior to the season.
"Jamal is a warrior, one of the few warriors on the team," McCrary told the Baltimore Sun. "You've got to pay your warriors. They have to be able to go out on the field and be completely focused. There can't be any interference because they play at a different level than other players."
Lewis said he has not lost his passion for the game, though he admitted he did question it when he started the season without a new contract. "I felt kind of like the organization did turn against me," Lewis said.
His passion was renewed after speaking with teammate Deion Sanders and former Baltimore director of player development Earnest Byner. Lewis said he is practicing and preparing for games in the same way he always has, and he has watched films of himself from the 2003 and 2004 seasons to see if he's doing anything wrong this season.
"I just don't see it," he said.
What is apparent is that the Ravens' offense has struggled mightily along with their workhorse back. Life won't get easier, either, as Baltimore (2-4) travels to AFC North rival Pittsburgh (4-2) on Monday night. The Ravens' offense has scored six touchdowns and only one rushing. The Steelers' defense is holding opponents to just below 90 rushing yards per game.
"It gets very tiring," Lewis said. "Everybody is depending on you. I gave and gave and gave over the last five, six years. I gave it all. Sometimes it's got to be a change. I expect for it to be easier for me sometimes. I expect I don't have to beat up on defense all the time. Maybe one day it'll ease up. That's what I'm looking for. Hopefully, that day will come. If not, five or six years from now, I'm going to be tore down."
Ravens Notes: Linebacker Ray Lewis (hamstring), safety Ed Reed (ankle) and fullback Alan Ricard (lower leg) are out this week. Wide receiver Mark Clayton (ankle), fullback Ovie Mughelli (ankle) and defensive end Anthony Weaver (toe) participated in portions of practice Thursday and are questionable. . . .
Quarterback Kyle Boller, who has not played since hyper-extending his right big toe in the season opener, is expected to get most of, if not all, of the snaps as the scout team quarterback this week as he works his way back into playing shape. He could be cleared to play against Cincinnati on Nov. 6 if he makes it through the week healthy.
"We'll see how the week goes, but we're very confident that he has turned that corner," Billick said. . . .
Billick referred to defensive end-linebacker Terrell Suggs as a "marked man" earlier in the week. Suggs, who has been called for two roughing-the-passer penalties in the past three games, defended his reputation Wednesday.
"I'm not the Ron Artest of football," said Suggs, who was ejected from the Detroit loss for making physical contact with an official. "Don't you dare try to categorize me like that. I'm not a bad boy, nothing like that."