OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The speculation began Sunday afternoon when Ravens coach John Harbaugh revealed inside linebacker Ray Lewis suffered a right triceps injury in the final minutes of the win over Dallas.
The rumors persisted throughout the day Monday until the news became official about the 37-year-old’s fate for the remainder of the 2012 season.
It wasn’t good.
“Ray has a triceps tear — a complete tear — so he will be out for the rest of the season,” Harbaugh said. “We just found that out in the last five minutes.”
Intentional or not, the head coach paused for a few seconds before continuing with the rest of his opening statements, as if he were allowing the news to sink in at the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills.
Even though Lewis doesn’t run as fast or cover as well or play as dominantly as he once did, the reaction to news of the season-ending injury was strong throughout the city of Baltimore and around the NFL. The inevitable question was broached about an inside linebacker in the midst of his 17th professional season and will be repeated in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Have we seen the last of the future Hall of Fame linebacker on the football field?
Fans, peers, and teammates will immediately say no, to no one’s surprise.
“If you tell Ray you hear he’s not playing any more, he’d freaking kill you,” Flacco told ESPN’s Ed Werder last week when asked if he thought this might be Lewis’ final year.
Anyone who has watched him play over the course of his 17 years in the NFL would be shocked if a competitor of Lewis’ nature would bow out after such a bitterly-disappointing end in the fourth quarter of a Week 6 game, with not a soul aware of it being his last game. Even if his body has betrayed him at this stage of a brilliant career, Lewis’ mind and spirit are too strong to accept a final chapter like this.
Yes, Lewis will undergo surgery, rehab, and try to return for an 18th season, so you can put that part of the conversation to rest. However, the Ravens have to be on board with those plans as well, which doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion that Lewis is leading the Baltimore defense in 2013.
Harbaugh didn’t provide an emphatic confirmation of those plans when asked about the future of his veteran linebacker. To be fair, however, the head coach had only learned the news of the injury minutes before fielding the question.
“I’m not going to make any comment on that,” Harbaugh said. “That’s for Ray to speak on. I admire Ray Lewis, I’ve said that many times. I think everybody that knows him feels that way about him. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what he says about that.”
Lewis is under contract through the 2015 season, but a player who’s already defied Father Time for years will be 38 and will carry a reported cap number of just over $7 million next season.
This isn’t to suggest that the Ravens won’t bring back the two-time Defensive Player of the Year next year, but the remainder of the season will serve as an evaluation period for the organization and, more specifically, the defense. The Ravens will also be faced with the decision of what to do with 34-year-old safety Ed Reed, whose contract expires after the season.
It’s no secret that Lewis has increasingly struggled in pass coverage over the last couple years, but the linebacker also appeared more vulnerable against the run this season, failing to shed blockers to make as many tackles around the line of scrimmage. His 44 solo tackles through six games led the team, but many of those came after substantial gains as the Baltimore run defense has struggled as a unit.
The Ravens defense played well last season while Lewis was sidelined with a toe injury for four games, a fact not lost on the organization as linebackers Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, and Albert McClellan helped fill the void. Playing without Lewis for the remainder of the season is a different story entirely, but if those individuals emerge to play well in his absence, the conversation becomes much more interesting in deciding what to do with the 13-time Pro Bowl selection next season.