He’s this city’s most polarizing sports figure.
He might very well be the best player at his position ever.
He’s a champion.
He’s a leader.
And he’s brought more notoriety to this city than any football player since a guy named Unitas.
Yet, in Baltimore, Ray Lewis doesn’t have 100% of the vote.
How that’s even possible is probably more of a story than the Ray Lewis story itself, but it’s true. Despite carrying the Ravens on his back for the better part of a decade now, #52 has enough critics to fill up the whole club level at M&T Bank Stadium. Unfair? You bet. But people believe what they want to believe. And some believe Ray Lewis isn’t due the credit he receives.
Baltimore revered the likes of Johnny U., Brooks and Cal, but merely appreciated Frank, Eddie and now, Ray. It’s always been that way in our city, for some reason. 50% of the people think Ray showboats too much while the other 50% view his act as “connecting with the fans”. In Baltimore, the two colors we see the most when it comes to sports AREN’T purple and orange. Unfortunately, Ray’s contribution to the Ravens has been somewhat tainted by a city’s inability to fully grasp all that he’s done.
Ray’s future with the team could be a major link in the John Harbaugh success-bracelet. If Lewis re-signs with the club and helps mold Harbaugh’s defense through the turn of the decade and beyond, perhaps Lewis can do for his new coach what he did for the old coach — help to fit him with a championship ring. But, should Ray depart at the conclusion of ’08 and finish his career elsewhere, Ravens fans, and Harbaugh, will quickly see a meteor-like hole in the team’s infrastructure. Repair time? Years, maybe.
My sources tell me Ray Lewis is looking for a $20 million deal with the Ravens when his contract expires after the ’08 season. Lewis and the Ravens – most notably Ozzie Newsome – have talked contract already, but the two sides couldn’t strike a deal in the off-season and Ray will play ’08 without the guarantee of ’09 money. The Ravens have informally looked at a $20 million deal but the numbers only work out in a 5 or 6-year contract with Lewis. And the club is keenly aware – as is Ray, certainly – that he will not be playing in the league in 2013 or 2014. He’s good, but he’s not THAT good. A possible scenario exists where the Ravens could ink Lewis to a deal in the $20 million range and give him $15 million of that up front, with the other $5 million earned out over the length of the contract. That’s a deal Lewis would like, but it’s unlikely the club will devote $15 million to a 33-year old linebacker nearing the Thanksgiving of his career. It will come down to money – as it almost always does – and that’s where ego and pride sometimes get in the way. Ray’s NOT going to play for free – or even at a discount – and the Ravens can’t possibly sink $20 million into him over a 2 or 3-year period. It would be salary cap suicide – and remember, there might not even be a salary cap by 2011, which makes striking a deal with a guy who’s in position to once again collect a big check all the more difficult for Ozzie Newsome.
Of course, the Ravens COULD just tell Ray “no thanks”, offer him some kind of intentional low-ball sum and watch him test the free agent market next winter. They COULD do that. And that COULD be construed as bush-league by some – and rightfully so, if you ask me. Either strike a deal with the man that is fair and compensates him fairly for what he brings to the table or give him one helluva fairwell party and watch him play in Foxboro or Miami for a couple of years to culminate his Hall of Fame career.
What will be interesting this year, though, is to watch how Ray moves through the ’08 campaign. For all the blessings he’s provided this city on the field, it’s only fair to note that Lewis has also earned the wrath that his detractor’s provide. At times, he’s been a malcontent. A misunderstood malcontent, perhaps, but a strife-causer nonetheless. There will ALWAYS be questions about what happened to him in the final two months of the 2005 campaign, when he scampered out of town in the middle of the night sans Mayflower Vans and loosely tossed us a story about a hamstring injury that required surgery. Because he was reluctant to provide details on that whole affair, questions still loom to this day. Was Ray really hurt? Or did the prospects of a disastrous season give him cause to think more about his future than the task at hand and did he simply “pack it in” to prolong his tenure in the league? No one really knows, but those questions haven’t gone away, even though the hamstring-surgery scar probably has by now. There are some who believe Lewis was the conductor of a grass-roots campaign to have Brian Billick removed from his position as Head Coach, but as much proof exists with that claim as do sightings of UFO’s and Bigfoot. Does Lewis carry a big stick at Owings Mills? Absolutely. Do he and owner Steve Bisciotti apparently have a relationship that borders on “intrusion to the system”? Perhaps. But, in the end, if Lewis DOES receive special treatment at 1 Winning Drive, it’s because he earns it 16 times a year.
Are some players on the team envious of Ray’s stature with the club? Sure. Do they privately bristle at the VIP robe he wears? You bet. Has the club enabled some of that tension by making Ray the centerpiece of the team’s on-field product? Definitely. But you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now is NOT the time to try and change Ray Lewis, the football player. Now is the time to extract every morsel of wisdom, talent and enthusiasm you can from him in the hopes his greatness rubs off on others who have more time to perfect their trade.
The Ravens have a lot of difficult decisions ahead of them and none will resonate as loudly as the one that comes along when they establish their next chapter with Ray Lewis. Keep him and pay him? If only it were that easy. To keep him, they will have to OVERPAY him. There’ll be no hometown discount with Lewis, mainly because Baltimore’s not his hometown and his roots here will easily be shoveled away the day his playing career is over. For Ray – and nearly every player in the league – these deals are about cash and business. If they were about WINNING, every guy would try to sign with New England the minute they become a free agent.
So what to do with 52? Spend more money on him and help usher him out into the Russell Street sunset within two or three years? That’s the RIGHT thing to do. Like him or not – and there are reasons for both – you can never, ever question what he’s done for the organization and for football in Baltimore. If our memories have been enhanced by his stay here – and no one can argue otherwise – the only thing for Lewis and Newsome to do is sit down like men and make sure Ray Lewis stays in purple forever.
If only it were that easy.