OWINGS MILLS — Ray Lewis’ legacy won’t be defined by the unwanted scenarios of a potential departure caused by a nasty contract dispute or an image sullied by the incongruous picture of the star middle linebacker wearing another team’s uniform to conclude a stellar career.
As it turned out, the Baltimore Ravens and Lewis were able to find common ground Wednesday afternoon to avoid those possibilities as they reached an agreement on a three-year, $22 million, incentive-laden contract that’s designed so the future Hall of Fame linebacker will complete his career in Baltimore. Unlike past legends of the fall like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Allen, Lewis won’t have to wrap up his football days in another NFL city.
"From beginning to end as a Raven … Wow!" Lewis said in a statement. "To be with the same team with the same fans for an entire career, that doesn’t happen in the NFL. The bottom line for me is that God always finishes first, and I prayed over this.
"Over the last six days, I took a back seat and waited to see what would happen. This is part of God’s plan, and I couldn’t be happier. For me to be here in an area that has become so important to me and my family, that’s special, very special."
After nearly a week of the silent treatment from NFL teams instead of the lucrative free agency bonanza Lewis had hoped for, the 33-year-old, two time NFL Defensive Player of the Year ultimately came to grips with the reality that the Ravens’ contract proposal, which hasn’t been signed and is expected to draw scrutiny from the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association before it’s approved, was the top offer he was going to get.
"Ray can retire as a Raven," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a telephone interview. "We got better. Our football team got better. I’m very happy."
It’s believed that the Ravens have built some protection into the contract language just in case Lewis declines over the next few years.
Ravens team spokesman Kevin Byrne said that Lewis’ contract won’t be formally finalized until some point within the next two weeks. Plus, a press conference won’t be conducted until the respective schedules of Lewis, team owner Steve Bisciotti, coach John Harbaugh and Newsome are coordinated.
"What a great day for the Ravens," Harbaugh said. "To get the commitment from Ray means so much to the team, to the franchise and to our fans."
This happy day didn’t come without some controversy leading up to Lewis eventually compromising with team officials.
Lewis angered Ravens fans as he openly expressed an interest to possibly play for the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets after his seven-year, $50 million contract signed in 2002 expired after last season.
However, Lewis’ exorbitant contract demands ended any possibility of going to New York and playing for former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who instead signed Baltimore inside linebacker Bart Scott to a six-year, $48 million contract.
The Cowboys were never really interested in Lewis even though he allegedly told Cowboy outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware it was "his dream" to wear the Cowboys’ star.
Dallas, which had little salary-cap room, wound up signing former Atlanta Falcons inside linebacker Keith Brooking.
Through former Ravens teammate Rod Woodson, a close friend who’s now an NFL Network analyst, Lewis denied that he made those statements to Ware and dismissed a published report from the NFL Network that he would rather retire than play again for Baltimore because he was supposedly angry at the Ravens.
With a free agent market that never materialized for Lewis during six days as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he stuck with the familiar surroundings of Baltimore.
From the Ravens’ standpoint, they never let the contract talks become acrimonious publicly on their part as they haggled with Lewis’ agent, David Dunn. Dunn and Lewis have drawn heavy criticism in NFL circles for misplaying and misreading the marketplace for a player who will turn 34 in May.
And the Ravens’ previous offer to Lewis of a three-year, $24 million contract with $17 million guaranteed was apparently lowered. As Bisciotti had declared after the season, it was the Ravens who were willing to pay Lewis the most money to lead their defense.
With Lewis locked up, the Ravens have retained a key defensive force in their lineup to help make up for the void created by Scott and Ryan’s exit to New York. Keeping Lewis maintains continuity for a defense transitioning to new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
Named to the Pro Bowl for the 10th time last season, Lewis led the NFL’s second-ranked defense with 160 tackles while recording 3 1/2 sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Although Lewis seemed to slow down a bit toward the end of the season, he proved he’s still capable of delivering bone-breaking hits as he did to Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall in fracturing Mendenhall’s shoulder and ending his season on a tackle early in September.
Although Lewis had trouble tracking down speedy Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson in the Ravens’ playoff victory in January, he remains a punishing tackler with above-average range for his age and size.
Drafted in the first round out of the University of Miami prior to the Ravens’ inaugural season in 1996, Lewis led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory in 2000 as he was named the Super Bowl MVP and the NFL Defensive MVP.
A dramatic 50-yard touchdown on an interception return against the Titans where he ripped the football out of running back Eddie George’s hands in an AFC divisional playoff win propelled the Ravens toward Super Bowl XXXV.
In 2003, Lewis was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year with six interceptions and a career-high 225 tackles.
For his career, Lewis has 33 1/2 sacks and 28 interceptions.
Last year, the Florida native played in every game. Now, the Ravens and Lewis are looking forward to Lewis playing every season in Baltimore before he’s eventually inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires.
"I don’t think an athlete can have a greater legacy than to be able to stay in one place for an entire career," Lewis said. "I feel so fortunate that the Ravens did what they had to do to make this happen. Thank you. My heart is with Baltimore and the great fans. What can I say? Here we go!"
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.