Ray Lewis is gone.
No longer will the Ravens have his leadership to look to during troubled times. No longer will he reset the defense during those waning pre-snap moments. No longer will he be there to inspire teammates before kickoff.
And perhaps the biggest reminder that the Ray Lewis Era is over will come on September 15 at 12:55 PM when No. 52 fails to emerge from the tunnel to Nelly’s “Hot in Here.”
The (squirrel) dance is over!
And a new era has begun.
Changes were made swiftly by the Ravens front office, seemingly before the sun set on that glorious February day in New Orleans. A Super Bowl title and the retirement of the game’s greatest middle linebacker ever, collectively provided the perfect opportunity for Ozzie Newsome & Co. to implement change.
The Ravens defense is younger and they are faster. They will eventually gel and be better than the defense that walked off the Superdome turf as champions. But it will take some time.
There’s no replacing Ray Lewis. His iconic level may never be approached again here in Baltimore or in any city for that matter. The transition can be difficult and emotional for fans of the team. But replacing an icon wasn’t the front office’s ambition when they tackled the challenges of this offseason. Their goal was just to improve the position on the field that Lewis occupied.
Daryl Smith, the free agent linebacker acquired to play the “Mike” will play the position in 2013 better than the way Ray Lewis played it in 2012 or even 2011 for that matter. We won’t see the demonstrative celebrations but what we will see is a professional with excellent technique capable of engaging and shedding blockers to take down ball carriers, blitzing inside the tackles and providing cover skills that long ago escaped Lewis.
If defensive coordinator Dean Pees wants to go with a sub package in obvious passing situations, he’ll be able to pull the “Mike” and go with nickels, dimes and quarters without hesitation or fear of replacing the once ever-present No. 52.
Smith doesn’t even want to engage the silly notion of “replacing” Ray Lewis yet he does appear humble and honored to be part of a winning organization with an established standard of excellence when it comes to defense.
“Definitely, but I don’t really think about all that [talk about replacing Lewis]. My focus is playing football and getting better each day.”
As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Smith also tackles the role of mentor with workmanlike ambition. He’ll be counted on to provide tutelage to the inexperienced Josh Bynes and promising rookie Arthur Brown who has been compared favorably to Navarro Bowman.
“My personal job has always been the same: come in, work hard, help younger guys. My personal job will be the same. I’m very fortunate to be a Raven [and] be a part of this organization. With everything we’ve got going on – all the work we’re putting in – we’re really coming together. We’re just going to keep working and go into Thursday and put another good game together and see how it goes.”
We’ll also see how the journey of Smith’s season unfolds here in Baltimore. Will he make his mark as a mentor? Will he and the team look to extend his one-year deal or will this simply be a launching point to re-ignite Smith’s career after an injury-plagued season in Jacksonville?
For now, Smith seems focused on the task at hand and to contribute to a winning organization, one that seemed like the right fit for the accomplished linebacker from the start.
“You go somewhere and you get a feeling that it feels right”, Smith shared yesterday after practice.
“Just talking with some of the guys who have played here – some former teammates – [they said,] ‘Hey, you’re going to love [Baltimore].’”
And if early signs are any indication Baltimore is going to love him back.