Jamal Lewis is used to facing a crowd of reporters on the Wednesday afternoon before a game with the Cincinnati Bengals; after all, the Baltimore Ravens running back has had some of the best games of his career against his AFC North rival.
But never has he had to answer the kind of questions he did this week. Coach Brian Billick said Monday that Lewis, who has had seven performances of at least 100 yards in eight games against the Bengals (7-3), will split the carries with his back-up, Chester Taylor. So instead of talking about how many yards he would gain, Lewis calmly discussed how he planned to deal with a reduced workload.
"It don't hurt," Lewis said. "If that's what they want, to evaluate and see how [Taylor] can do and everything, I embrace him. If he's getting more carries or if he's getting more time, it doesn't bother me. I've proven what I can do. The only thing that it does is it keeps me fresher, it keeps me going."
For the Ravens (3-7), Billick said that rotating the running backs "seems to be the most productive angle for us," plus it gives them the chance to evaluate two players who will be unrestricted free agents following the season.
Taylor, 26, has been the more productive back this season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry to Lewis's 3.0 yards.
Lewis, 26, has hardly resembled the player who ran for over 2,000 yards in 2003. He is tied for 24th in the NFL in rushing, with 508 yards on 172 carries and has four fumbles, three of which were inside the Baltimore 25-yard line. In last week's 16-13 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lewis was booed by the home crowd when he returned to the field after a second-quarter fumble, and Taylor was cheered when he replaced Lewis.
"I think both of them are great backs," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Let's embrace what we have here for the time being because it might not be this way next year. Let's embrace it and deal with it. Let's not try to pit one back versus the other."
In each of the last three seasons, Lewis has broken at least one run of longer than 75 yards; he hasn't done that this year. He has 26 100-yard games in his career, but none this season.
Lewis says that his production would be different if he would get more than 20 carries in a game; the 13 to 15 carries he's received in each of the past three games "isn't enough for me to get what I need to get done."
Through the first 60 games of his career, Lewis averaged 21 carries per game; two years ago, he received 24 carries per game. This season, there have been two games in which Lewis carried the ball more than 20 times: victories over the New York Jets (29 carries for 81 yards) and Cleveland (24 for 59 yards).
"If I had 20-plus carries a game, you'd see those 100-yard games. That's unquestionable," Lewis said. "Like I've said in the past, every other premier back in the league gets the ball 25, 30 times a game. But we have different circumstances where I can't get the ball that many times in some games because we're behind or things of that nature. I'm not a selfish person; we have to work things out in the best interest of the team to win."
Only five running backs have more than 200 carries this season, and each averages at least four yards per carry. Lewis has the lowest per-carry average of any of the top 30 rushers in the league (though Carolina's Stephen Davis is also averaging 3.0 yards per carry). Before this season, Lewis averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
His difficulties in the offseason aside, no one has been able to figure out why Lewis's performance has dropped so sharply. After undergoing ankle surgery in January, he spent four months in a federal prison and two months in a halfway house serving a drug conspiracy sentence. As a result, he missed all of the Ravens' offseason workouts, and was a late arrival to camp.
Lewis has looked hesitant at times, and earlier in the season he expressed concern about getting hurt in this, the final year of his contract. He hasn't been as explosive or as physical as in the past.
"I wish I could put my finger on it," Billick said. "I believe he's healthy, he's running hard, he's practicing hard. There's plenty of want there. Why we haven't gotten that break of a tackle and step aside and had that big run, I'm sure he's scratching his head as much as we are. All the things that we've commented on before -- the offseason, the rehab, the training camp, the whole nine yards -- yeah, they are factors."
Lewis views the final six games as a "Chester Taylor evaluation." Billick said that he believes that Taylor can be a productive every-down back. Taylor was the Ravens' primary rusher in five games last season when Lewis was either suspended or injured, compiling 471 yards on 103 carries in those games.
"The only thing I can do is come in here and do what I do every week," Lewis said. "Prepare hard in practice, work hard in practice, work hard in the game and just approach every game like I've done in the past."
Ravens Note: Safety Ed Reed (ankle), linebacker Ray Lewis (thigh) and guard Keydrick Vincent (thigh) have been ruled out of Sunday's game.