Walking to the podium to meet reporters as he begins his 17th training camp with the Ravens, Ray Lewis displayed the customary exuberance that controls any environment in which he stands.
But it was his shockingly smaller physique that left the largest impression as Lewis arguably looked more like a strong safety than the inside linebacker who’s controlled the middle of the Baltimore defense since the franchise’s inception. Revealing during last month’s mandatory minicamp that he planned to play at a lighter weight this season, the 37-year-old has followed through on his promise as he admitted being at his lightest playing weight since entering the league in 1996.
Playing at 250 pounds last season, Lewis is listed at 240 pounds on the team’s official roster, but it would be difficult convincing anyone who saw him Wednesday he weighs more than 230. Many will question how that translates to playing with enough physicality at the inside linebacker position, but even the future Hall of Fame linebacker recognizes the need to adapt at this stage in his career.
“The game has changed,” said Lewis, who wouldn’t divulge his exact weight as he smiled. “The game is no longer about 250, 260-pound fullbacks, and offenses running it 30, 40 times [a game]. The game has changed. It’s all based on matchups now. People want to find mismatches here and there, so you just change with the game. If everyone can run, who can’t run? For me, that was what my thought process was coming into this next year.”
Lewis learned that lesson all too well last season as he struggled in pass coverage and dealt with a toe injury that sidelined him for four games. Opposing offenses targeted him at times as tight ends and running backs often found space against him. It’s no secret the veteran has slowed down over the last few seasons, but discussion of whether Lewis should continue to be an every-down linebacker grew louder and louder in 2011, even as he was elected to his 13th Pro Bowl.
His change in physique is the simple result of an aging athlete trying to adapt to his surroundings. Playing at a lighter weight will help his speed and mobility — just how much remains to be seen — but Lewis will depend even more on big defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody to keep blockers from getting to him at the second level.
Should he once again wilt in coverage against running backs and more athletic tight ends such as Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, new defensive coordinator Dean Pees will need to be more creative in hiding Lewis in coverage and relying more on Jameel McClain and situational backers Dannell Ellerbe and Brendon Ayanbadejo. The Ravens can only hope a lighter Lewis won’t also experience adverse effects in playing the run, the area in which he’s remained rock solid despite losing speed over the last few years.
Yes, it’s a young man’s game and while Lewis continues to compete against Father Time in the same way he’s wrecked opposing running backs for the last 16 seasons, it’s ultimately a battle he cannot win but has managed to prolong as well as anyone to ever play the game. The weight loss is the same strategy used by former teammate Shannon Sharpe, who left lasting impressions on Lewis in the early stages of his career.
“I had a couple of coaches over the years [who gave] great advice that was shared with me: the later you get [in your career], the lighter you play,” Lewis said. “You just feel better. Because you have the wisdom to go off and do whatever you want to do. But I just think playing lighter is much smarter for me.”
We’ll understandably question Lewis’ ability to continue to play at such a high level, but we sometimes lose sight of just how remarkable his 17-year run as been. And — within reason — it’s why he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Fellow 1996 first-round pick Jonathan Ogden is eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next year while Lewis continues to be named to Pro Bowls.
Former teammate Jamal Lewis will be inducted into the Ravens’ Ring of Honor this September. He was drafted four years after the middle linebacker.
And the Ravens’ top draft pick this season, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, was merely six years old when Lewis first took the field at Memorial Stadium in 1996.