For years, future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis has been fighting an opponent more daunting than the Pittsburgh Steelers, an enemy aiming to take his livelihood no matter how many accolades he collects to suggest otherwise.
It’s a number, one that’s far more intimidating than the No. 52 jersey opponents have lined up against for 16 years. And it’s a battle Lewis cannot win, making him as mortal as the hundreds of men he’s played with and the thousands more with which he’s clashed on the football field.
It’s no secret that Lewis has sparred with Father Time for years. A simple look back at some of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game shows how remarkable it’s been for the Baltimore linebacker to have played at such a high level for such a long time.
Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, and Mike Singletary? Lewis has played significantly longer than all of them. He’s the same age that Packers legend Ray Nitschke was when calling it quits. On the short list of the NFL’s greatest linebackers, only Junior Seau played longer than Lewis has at this point, as the Chargers standout held on long enough to become a shell of the great player he once was.
“Where I am now in my career, I appreciate the game,” Lewis said. “I appreciate the mistakes. I appreciate the ups and the downs because there is always a learning curve that I have already been through many times.”
With the Ravens enjoying a bye week before playing their first home playoff game in five years, much has been opined about Lewis’ decline, particularly in pass coverage. It hasn’t happened over night, mind you, but the turf toe injury that sidelined him four games has shined a spotlight on his diminished skills as opposing teams have attacked Lewis in the passing game with much success.
The debate whether Lewis has lost a step or two has gone on in Baltimore for the last three to four years. The argument always working in the linebacker’s favor was his cerebral approach that may be second to none in the history of professional football. We’ve seen it time and time again when Lewis calls out the opposition’s plays after spending all week dissecting their tendencies in film study.
The viewpoint was always held that whatever Lewis had lost in physical ability he had likely made up for it in experience and football IQ tenfold.
“I would never want to go back to being a young Ray Lewis,” Lewis said. “The young Ray Lewis, he was good, he was good, but he was out of control a lot of times. The way I am now is a much wiser person.”
But, at some point, a declining body can no longer keep up with the blossoming mind. It happens to every professional athlete, as not one has yet to figure out how to avoid one thing: the end of his or her career.
It’s unfair to conclude whether Lewis is at that point, especially with a painful toe injury that’s likely impacting his play substantially, but there’s no denying the end is inching much closer. And for a Ravens team with its best chance to win a Super Bowl in five years, it’s time to offer any assistance it can to help Lewis in this losing fight.
Though it will lead to interesting discussions and decisions following the season, taking Lewis off the field in certain situations is not an option as the Ravens begin their postseason run in less than two weeks. The psychological fracture it would potentially create for a defense built prominently on emotion would be too much to risk, especially considering the roster isn’t exactly breeding linebackers who are strong in pass coverage.