As the Ravens begin preparations to play in Super Bowl XLVII, the finality has set in about inside linebacker Ray Lewis playing his final game on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
The 37-year-old will offer his final pre-game speech prior to the game and, presumably, dance for the final time in front of the entire world as the Ravens seek their second NFL championship and first since Jan. 28, 2001. However, questions and concerns continue to exist about the daunting task of replacing Lewis’ impeccable leadership.
In addition to being regarded as one of the best defensive players in NFL history, Lewis is considered one of the greatest and most emotional leaders the sport has ever seen. Regardless of what happens against the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, how do the Ravens fill that enormous void?
“He’s a guy who is ‘The Raven,'” safety Bernard Pollard said. “We respect him. When he speaks, everybody stops, everybody hears him. He’s kept this team together. He’s kept this organization together in so many ways, and we are all in this together. We want to go win this thing.”
The reality is that the Ravens won’t do anything differently to replace Lewis, in terms of his play on the field or his leadership. The talk in recent drafts of needing to find an “heir apparent” such as Dont’a Hightower or Vontaze Burfict or Manti Te’o has always been amusing in the sense that you never knowingly find a Hall of Fame player. Yes, someone will assume his position next season, but the Ravens will use the same approach they use for any other position on the field in looking for the right player at the right price or value, whether it comes via free agency or the draft.
Even more interesting is the discussion over how Lewis’ leadership will be replaced in the locker room. Candidates certainly exist such as quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice, or even linebacker Terrell Suggs, but the Ravens cannot and will not alter their approach or ask any one individual to change who they are.
Lewis’ absence will be felt throughout the organization, and no one will replace the immense impact he provides in the same way. The post-Lewis era needs to be cultivated organically in the sense that the Ravens have other players they feel can be leaders — even if that leadership won’t include the same demonstrative theatrics or impassioned speeches.
The reality is the Ravens already have other leaders in their locker room, including players who have been drafted over the years and even free-agent signings. Flacco and Rice are leaders in a different sense than Lewis despite only completing their fifth season. General manager Ozzie Newsome has also combed the market in recent seasons for free agents who have provided leadership qualities in different areas such as center Matt Birk, defensive end Cory Redding (now with the Indianapolis Colts), and Pollard.
The Ravens will never look or feel the same way following Super Bowl XLVII, but that doesn’t mean the organization is obsessing over what to do in a life without Lewis. The transformation must happen naturally, just like it did with Lewis over the years after he was initially a 21-year-old rookie who entered a locker room that included veteran leaders such as Rob Burnett, Pepper Johnson, Eric Turner, and Vinny Testaverde in the spring of 1996. He didn’t become the leader that he is now overnight, and Lewis would be the first to tell you that.
“Everybody knows what kind of a player he is and what he has meant to this team and this organization,” said Birk, who could also be playing his final NFL game in New Orleans. “There is probably not another leader like him. There’s no one like him, someone that means as much as he does to this team. Everything that he has been through, being here from Day One and the way he plays and the emotion and the passion that he plays with.”
There’s simply no replacing Lewis, and the Ravens will continue to do things the way they always have and they’ll be just fine in the long run — even if it will never look the exact same way.
Caldwell staying as coordinator
The announcement by coach John Harbaugh at the end of Monday’s press conference that he would be retaining his entire coaching staff and, more notably, Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator was hardly surprising as the Ravens won the AFC Championship.
The dramatic improvement of the Baltimore offense and quarterback Joe Flacco in the postseason made it easy to decide that Caldwell would be Harbaugh’s guy for the 2013 season.
The Ravens haven’t made any dramatic changes to what they do offensively, but Caldwell has offered a new voice, a calming presence, and an open line of communication with fellow assistants and offensive players. The former Indianapolis coach has taken very little credit, citing the execution and hard work of players and the tireless efforts of the rest of the offensive coaching staff as the explanation for the offense’s improved consistency.
Unlike former coordinator Cam Cameron who had a reputation for wanting things done his way and for not being receptive to suggestions from others, Caldwell has welcomed feedback from his players and other assistants, in part because of his lack of experience having never been an offensive coordinator prior to being elevated on Dec. 10.
He has identified the need to highlight Flacco’s strengths by being aggressive in the vertical passing game and moving the pocket to neutralize potent pass rushes. The Ravens have also used the middle of the field more effectively in the passing game, which was first evident when they scored 33 points against the New York Giants in Week 16.
If for no other reason, Caldwell deserved to remain as offensive coordinator because of the outstanding play of Flacco, who was the best quarterback in the AFC in the postseason and is on the cusp of joining a select group of NFL quarterbacks if the Ravens can topple San Francisco. It remains to be seen what type of stamp Caldwell will put on the offense with a full offseason of work, but his efforts are a significant reason why the Ravens are making plans for a trip to New Orleans.
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