It’s Possible That The Ravens, Or Ray Lewis, Or Both May Have Already Decided to Move On. If So, Then Spin And Posturing Are All That’s Left, And The Ravens Appear To Be Winning.
With all of the drama that already surrounds Ray Lewis’ impending free agency, it’s tough to believe that free agency itself won’t actually even begin for a few more days. Already though, we’ve been subjected to a full off season’s worth of hype, speculation and innuendo, regarding the possible departure of Lewis, yet we’re no wiser as to how this whole thing will play out.
We have all been conditioned to cheer for laundry, so as football fans, this is par for the course. Rarely though, does a player like Lewis come along, and with no way of knowing just how much Ray has left in his tank, it’s likely as tough a decision as Ravens’ General Manager Ozzie Newsome has ever had to make. From Lewis’ own standpoint, it can’t be easy either, which may be part of the reason why he has seemingly said all of the wrong things throughout this process.
From his sit down with Deion Sanders and Rich Eisen at the conclusion of the Ravens; playoff run, through his Superbowl week interview here on WNST, and his Pro Bowl chat with Jamie Dukes, and now to his second hand comments offered through DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys, one thing seems consistent with Ray’s message. It seems that Ray Lewis has no better idea where he’ll be playing next season than you or I do at this point. And therefore, in his own financial best interests, he seems to be giving lip service to any team that someone brings up as a possible suitor.
And as fans, no matter how many times we may remind ourselves that it’s just a business, it’s sometimes tough to draw that line, especially when it comes to a player as polarizing as Lewis. No matter what happens in negotiations, Lewis’ football reputation in Baltimore is cemented, and inarguable. Whether or not he’d be able to forge such a legacy in another city is doubtful, but as a linebacker, as a football player, and as a Raven, Lewis’ place in the history of the game is secure.
As a man, on the other hand, Lewis’ status with many of the same fans that have grown to love and admire his on field play is still very much in question. Fairly or not, what happened in Atlanta back in 2000, created a label for Ray that he’s had to work to get out from under for a very long time. The Ravens certainly did what they could to help in that healing process, and I have heard a number of fans point to that alone as a reason why Ray should have undying loyalty to the franchise that’s been his only NFL home. I, for one, don’t see it that way though. The Ravens’ interest in helping Ray move forward from his difficulties was certainly in the best interests of the franchise too. It’s tough for me to believe that they would have stood so boisterously behind Cornell Brown or DeRon Jenkins if it were one of them in that situation.
I will say though, that former head coach Brian Billick may have also cemented his reputation, with the fans and media, by standing in defense of Ray during Superbowl week in 2000. Lewis could have reciprocated that that type of defense for his coach during a tough 2007 campaign, but apparently did not. Whether or not Lewis, or anyone else actually turned on Billick, or sold him down the river to ownership isn’t for me to say. What I can say though, is that if Lewis’ leadership is all that it’s been cracked up to be over the years, he should have been able to reel the locker room in. In fact, it’s tough to imagine any type of uprising in the Ravens locker room getting very far without Lewis’ endorsement.
Leaving now, would be a reminder for many about how he seemingly rolled out on the team when the chips were down in 2005. The season in which he was excused to rest an injury that prevented him from traveling, yet appeared on the sidelines at one college bowl game at least, while his team was limping to a 6-10 finish. Or the fact that it was widely reported in both 2005 & 2006 that Lewis was seeking a new contract with a $50 million bonus, or a trade. It might remind us again of the time that he compared himself to Michael Jordan, or the time that he dumped on Kelly Gregg, and the Ravens’ system for not allowing him to get free and make plays.
Lewis’ play on the field has always kept those other things on the back burner. But now it appears that a PR war may be underway between Lewis and the Ravens, and in this match up, for once, Lewis may have met his match.
Many scoffed last off-season, when owner Steve Bisciotti proclaimed that he didn’t think that Lewis would be as valuable to other franchises as he is to the Ravens. Now in hindsight, it would seem that the Ravens have said and done all of the right things in preparing for the inevitability of this situation. If Lewis were to leave now, it would seem that the perception would be that the team did all that they could to retain him. The team has proclaimed their loyalty to Lewis publicly, and appears to be doing all that is reasonably possible to keep him. Lewis, on the other hand, it seems is auctioning himself off to the highest bidder, or positioning himself to fulfill a lifelong dream, or possibly both.
In that sense, who could blame him? It should be the star’s last big payday, and if that’s what’s most important to him, than it’s tough to blame him. If his decision boils down strictly to money though, at this point in his career, you’d certainly have to question the financial acumen that has put him in that position.
In the end, maybe the Ravens don’t even truly want him back. Given the success that they had this past season with key additions like Lorenzo Neal, Willie Anderson and Jim Leonhard, maybe they feel like it’d be better to spread that money around. Lewis is 33 after all, and with 13 seasons under his belt, he’s an old 33 at that. His numbers were solid this season, but he’s definitely not the player that he once was. Truth be told, it could be a long, long time before the NFL sees another player like Lewis once was. Still, since the end of 2001, last year was only the second season in which Lewis played in all 16 games.
If the Ravens really don’t want him back, at least not at his price, they’ve certainly done a good job of making it look like they’re making an effort. If money is the driving force for Lewis, I think it’s more likely he hurts his long term financial picture with the damage that leaving town does to his reputation around here, than that he’d help himself financially by getting a few more dollars from another team, and trying to endear himself to another whole market.
Sooner or later the Ravens will have to figure out what life without Lewis will be like. At his price, sooner is looking more and more likely. As it pertains to his impact, the Ravens may be right to pass. If the Patriots or Steelers were pursuing him, I might feel differently, but they aren’t. Instead, at least so far, it looks like the Jets and Cowboys will be the teams that we’re competing with for his services. Something tells me that if you are competing with the Jets and Cowboys for a free agent, you might want to reconsider your pursuit.
The Cowboys, who just gave up an inordinate amount of draft picks for a #2 wide receiver that they barely used; the team that routinely targets other teams’ disciplinary issues in hopes of adding star power. The team that can’t seem to decide on their head coach of the present or the future, and that will have to commit big money to keeping DeMarcus Ware next season. That’s where you want to go? When was the last time they won a playoff game? Maybe instead of DeMarcus Ware, Lewis should give Zach Thomas a call. Thomas and Lewis careers have had similar paths, and Thomas had the added bonus of coming home to Texas. I wonder if he’s happy with his decision to come to Dallas.
And then there are the Jets; the team that cut loose the quarterback who’d eventually win comeback player of the year and keep them from the playoffs, for a one-year flyer on Brett Favre. The Jets are on their third coach in 4 seasons, and have been through nearly twice as many quarterbacks in that same span. Competing with these two teams for any free agent makes me just a bit nervous.
Actually, there’s one other thing that the Jets and Cowboys have in common. Both are darlings of the media, and especially the four-letter network up in Bristol. Both teams were routinely featured as the lead story on sports news shows, while playoff bound teams were lost in the fold. Maybe Lewis is feeling the same second city complex that many Baltimoreans have felt. Maybe, rather than paydays or championships, Lewis seeks a level of stardom that he just hasn’t been able to achieve here in Baltimore.
The longer this goes on, the more sense it seems to make to just move on. Maybe Lewis has already decided that he wants to get something that Baltimore can’t offer. And maybe the Ravens have likewise decided that $7 – $10 million per year could be better spent elsewhere. If so, then all that’s left is the posturing for the fans and media. And for once, Ray Lewis may have finally met his match.