With each passing interview, Ray Lewis’ stance seems to become clearer and clearer. It would seem at this point, that the physical and emotional leader of the Baltimore Ravens will be taking his services to the highest bidder, and will have no sentimental issues if that winds up being outside of the city that has been his football home for the past 13 seasons.
At this point, who could blame him? If retaining his services were as much of a priority as owner Steve Bisciotti and others have intimated, then perhaps negotiations should never have been allowed to reach this point. The Ravens, it seems, took a gamble that the price tag would go down after this season, but the opposite has seemingly happened, and the price of poker continues to go up with each new potential “player”.
From his perspective, Lewis has seemingly made his position clear. Business is business, and whether the rumors of his financial strife are real or not, this is sure to be Lewis’ last opportunity to cash in big. He’s given all that he has to the game, and deserves to leave it in strong financial shape. He’s also stated that he hopes that the Ravens do whatever is in the best interest of the team, for now and in the future, as he is looking to do for himself. Perhaps Lewis is seeing the business side of the game better now than at any time in his illustrious career.
In any regard, whatever happens with Ray Lewis’ career in 2009 and beyond, his legacy in Baltimore is certainly cemented. In whatever fashion Ray decides to leave, it would be difficult for fans to begrudge a man who gave so much, and played so long at the center of the rebirth of Baltimore football.
From the team’s perspective, things are quite a bit different. The team will have deal with managing the cap, maintaining the locker room, looking toward the future, and appeasing the fan base. By allowing things to get this far, they’ve created a situation that could become explosive on a number of fronts. And coming off of a successful 2008 campaign, priority number one should be staying in the hunt and making the subtle improvements necessary to get over the top. But moreover, they still can’t allow themselves to lose track of long-term goals, or to forget that they’re dealing with a local icon at this point, and the failure to bring him back will surely create backlash.
After 13 seasons, the Ravens and their fans should be prepared to deal with life after #52. I think that as fans, most of us are resigned to the fact that our loyalty to the team will outlast all of the current players at some point, even Ray Lewis. What we probably weren’t prepared for was that Lewis would still be playing at such a high level at this stage in his career. Maybe we should have been ready for that too, he is Ray Lewis after all.
We saw it happen with Green Bay last off-season, although under somewhat different circumstances. Still, by drafting Aaron Rodgers years ago, the Packers were preparing for life without Favre; and Favre, like Lewis had given some subtle indications that he may be winding down. Sooner or later the team would have to find out what they’d be without their aged superstar, but in both cases the star continued to play at a high level and keep his team competitive.
Unlike the Favre situation, the Ravens don’t have an heir apparent waiting in the wings to take the reigns. That is, unless the system itself is the unknown commodity. Outside of Ray Lewis, the defense has been basically plug and play for a long time now. Maybe the same system that propels marginal defensive talent like Bart Scott and Edgerton Hartwell to a Pro Bowl caliber also propels Pro Bowl talent like Ray Lewis to All World stature. It’s the chicken or the egg dilemma. Is Lewis another product of a superior system, or is he the system himself? Sooner or later, the Ravens will have to find out.
Maybe it’s time that the team learned to play hardball. For all of the accolades that they receive for being a model organization, perhaps they’ve been a little bit soft on the business side of things. Their front office and coaching staff has seemingly been fleeced unlike any other in football, even though there have been more successful organizations over the past 13 years. And maybe they’ve also been guilty of showing too much humanity, at least to a select few players.
Again, Lewis’ stance is clear; business is business. He’s going to do what’s best for him, and says at least, that the team should do the same. The Ravens however, don’t always seem to feel the same way. If business were strictly business with the Ravens, then Lewis would likely have been franchised already. But if business were just business, they probably would have franchised AD a couple of years ago too; although, I don’t remember AD having a massive PR campaign, or making those types of statements either.
For a little over $8 million*, it would seem like the easy choice. The Ravens would pay less than if they wound up bidding against other teams, and they’d have total control for the next 2 seasons. After that, they can revisit this whole dilemma all over again, and by then Lewis’ skills should be nearing the end of their line too, making it a much simpler decision at that time.
Or if the Ravens simply feel that the money is better spent elsewhere now, then franchising him would still seem to be the smart business decision. As I said, at some point they have to prepare for life without Ray, as do we as fans. If the money went toward improving the rest of the team and the Ravens won the Superbowl next season without Lewis, I doubt that many feelings would be hurt aside from Lewis himself. Even if Lewis went to the Cowboys, and won the Superbowl next year with them, there wouldn’t be many hurt feelings around here, unless they beat the Ravens, or the Ravens seemed to be really close without him.
The worst-case scenario for the Ravens would have to be Lewis going to another AFC contender, like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego or New England, and then standing directly in the way of the Ravens reaching the Superbowl themselves. If they decided to franchise and trade him, they could not only control where he goes, but also get value back in return.
Hopefully the Ravens have been paying attention to Lewis’ recent media tour and have gotten his message. Winning on the field begins with winning in the front office, and for once, it’s the Ravens vs. Ray Lewis. Based on what we’ve seen on the field, he’s not an opponent I’d like to have, so the Ravens may want to use every trick at their disposal.
*NFL franchise rules require that the player receive a contract worth the average of the top 5 at his position ($8.304 mil. for a LB) or a 20% raise, whichever is greater. Since Lewis’ 2008 salary was $6.5 mil. It would stand to reason that he’d get the $8.304 mil. However my understanding of the cap is rudimentary. He had a 2008 cap number of $9.428 mil. If that were used to determine his salary, then he’d get about $11.31 mil. Under the franchise tag for 2009.