If in fact the Ravens’ season reaches beyond December, a huge part of the credit would have to be dished out to No. 52.
Ray Lewis is the quintessential team leader, the Ravens’ defensive captain and on field orchestrator of Rex Ryan’s defensive symphony. His experience, his dedication to film study and his recognition skills have enabled him to maintain a level of excellence that belies his age. And just when you think the speed and explosiveness aren’t there, he flattens Kellen Winslow triggering a game altering interception or he breaks the shoulder of a rookie running back at the goal line to force a field goal minimizing the red zone damage.
Watching Ray Lewis in 2008 is much like watching video of him from the 2003 season when he won Defensive Player of the Year honors. It’s as though he has discovered life’s fountain of youth.
Yet Lewis’ value to the team extends well beyond his play on the field. He inspires, he teaches, he is the Ravens’ Michael Jordan possessing a unique ability to make those around him better players than they would be without him.
“You’ve definitely got to respect Ray Lewis, hands down the greatest general, the greatest leader”, Terrell Suggs said after the Ravens most recent victory over the Browns. “When we were down, he told the entire team, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ You could see the truth in his eyes.”
The 13 year veteran continues to harbor an insatiable desire to compete, set goals and pursue them relentlessly. And one of those goals is a new contract at the end of the 2008 season.
Earlier this year, Steve Bisciotti and the Ravens front office tried to come to terms with Lewis on an extension that would have guaranteed the perennial Pro Bowler’s status as a life long Raven. But the two sides were so far apart that they agreed to table the discussions until after the season. Bisciotti has publicly stated that it would not be in the Ravens best interest to bid against themselves. So the logical conclusion was to let Ray become a free agent, let the market determine his value and then bring that value back to the Ravens so that the two sides could narrow the monetary gap.
But the market value alone will not capture Lewis’ value to the Ravens.
Linebacker coaches have come and gone. Coordinators have come and gone. Head coaches have come and gone. Pro Bowl teammates have come and gone. Yet the common denominator for the Ravens history of defensive excellence is Ray Lewis.
It is no coincidence that so many former Ravens’ defenders have pursued riches elsewhere only to never achieve the same success on the field without a teammate named Ray Lewis. He just makes them better.
Naturally a defensive leader will need to succeed Lewis at some point in the foreseeable future and it would behoove the Ravens to allow Lewis to pass that torch along with some of his wisdom, passion and commitment to the game. Perhaps the recipient of that torch is Tavares Gooden. Maybe it’s Jameel McClain or some undetermined linebacker still wearing a collegiate uniform. But even if his successor only plays with Lewis a year or two, that just might be the needed indelible mark on the young player’s career to help him at least partially fill No. 52’s ample shoes.
Ray Lewis will tell you that the Ravens don’t have to move so fast and make a hasty decision on his successor. He believes that he’s good to go for another four or five seasons. Yet even the most optimistic supporters of Ray Lewis would have to agree that you can’t pay a soon to be 34 year old linebacker a huge signing bonus that the organization will someday regret in this age of the salary cap.
Other organizations have faced similar gut wrenching decisions with their aging stars. The 49ers parted ways with Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. The Chargers let Junior Seau go. It’s simply the nature of the NFL beast.
But just as Ray Lewis appears to be going against nature and Father Time, the Ravens might want to think twice about treating Ray Lewis the way the aforementioned stars were treated. Ray is a bit different because of the intangibles. He’s a bit different because he along with Jonathan Ogden and Matt Stover has been a Raven from day the Ravens’ franchise first took the field.
In the past, I have argued that the Ravens and their fans need to prepare for the day Ray is no longer a Raven, pointing towards the Montanas of the world as proof to support my argument.
Well I was wrong! Ray Lewis made a believer out of me this year.
Special circumstances, special people, special players require special treatment and clearly Ray Lewis is special.
Ray hasn’t always been forthright and he’s been guilty of a little selfishness in the past. But we all make mistakes. Let’s hope that the Ravens don’t make one by allowing Ray to get away. Let him find out what his market value is, trump that figure and let him finish his career as a Raven.