Prior to the 2001 season I recall feeling that on the heels of a Super Bowl XXXV Championship, the next season arrived too fast.
I wanted to bask in the glow of a city of champions just a little longer.
Starting the season meant that the title of “Defending World Champions” would only last another 5 months, save a repeat title.
Of course the season ending knee injury to Jamal Lewis and then the loss of free agent right tackle Leon Searcy made the season an uphill climb from jump street.
Elvis Grbac did little to squelch the developing concerns and the quest to repeat fell short as the Ravens were easily knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional round by their arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Naturally we all hope for a better outcome in 2013 than in 2001 but protecting the crown is extremely difficult. The challenge is even more daunting without the omnipotent presence of Raymond Anthony Lewis, Jr.
Since their inception the Baltimore Ravens have enjoyed the greatness of No. 52. Leadership, determination, perseverance, focus, physicality, excellence – personified.
His relentless pursuit of improving day-to-day, play-to-play, minute-by-minute was undeniable. Teammates got in line and joined in, or they got out of line and eventually walked out.
Opponents respected and feared him. Fans worshipped him. His squirrel dance before each home game was the opening act for the National Anthem.
And now Ray is no longer around. His absence is a bit eerie. It spells opportunity for inside linebacker hopefuls. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees explains why.
It’s like if you walk in [Under Armour Performance Center] as a mike linebacker, you are saying in the last 16 years, you are pretty much saying, ‘I’m a backup.’ You walk in as a mike linebacker now, you could be a starter.
So, it’s amped up a little bit as far as in the classroom and all that stuff. Guys feel like they have a chance. To me, the best thing I like about when I watch film is the competitiveness between the first and second group – even the third group that gets in there – they are all fighting for a spot. They all kind of see, ‘I have a chance.’ Sometimes that’s very rewarding.
I will give you an example: One time when I was at Miami of Ohio, we went down and played LSU, and when they were ranked third in the country. We were trying to figure out how little Miami of Ohio, how we’re not going to get slaughtered here. They had just beaten Texas A&M 35-7 the week before, and Texas A&M was ranked seventh.
We get down there, and what I did was made a red team, a white team and a black team. Those were our school colors. The red team had two starters on the D-line, one starter at linebacker, two starters on the secondary. The next group when I said white that was the other two starters on the D-line, the other linebackers and the other secondary. The black team was our black shirts – that was our starting group.
So, I started the game in the first series with the black shirts, then I went to the red team, then I went to the white team, and I always ended the half with the black team. Part of it was because of the heat; I didn’t want everybody to get tired.
What I found out in doing that is because everybody had a role and everybody felt like they had a part in that defense, they played their ass off. We beat them 21-12. The thing of it is that sometimes the more you get involved in a package and guys aren’t just looking and saying, ‘I’m a perennial backup,’ guys play a little harder and play a little faster and play a little more together.
Time will tell if the Ravens have a group that will fight for the chance to fill the ample shoes of Ray Lewis. No one can completely, yet this window of opportunity is there for the taking just waiting to ignite a career.
And in doing so, perhaps that opportunity will help the team to successfully transition from the end of an era.
But make no mistake about it, it will never be the same.
That dance is over…