Less than 10 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair the torn triceps in his right arm, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis appeared poised to make his improbable return to the field against the New York Giants on Sunday.
Instead, his comeback will apparently be delayed for a couple more weeks.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported early Saturday afternoon that Lewis is not expected to return until the playoffs despite growing optimism this week that the 37-year-old linebacker would play in the regular-season home finale.
Baltimore would have needed to activate Lewis from the injured reserve-designated to return list on Saturday afternoon for him to play in his first game since Oct. 14 when he suffered the injury to his right upper arm against the Dallas Cowboys. Originally declared to be lost for the season by coach John Harbaugh, Lewis was placed on IR with this season’s new designation to return after a minimum of eight weeks.
At the time, many assumed the Ravens were simply granting Lewis a courtesy as most medical experts declared a minimum of four months for a recovery from such a serious procedure. However, the 13-time Pro Bowl selection returned to practice on Dec. 5, which was far ahead of even the most optimistic timetables suggesting Lewis could return for a postseason run.
With three weeks of practice now under his belt and fellow inside linebacker Jameel McClain sidelined for the rest of the season to open up a spot on the 53-man roster, Lewis hoped to come out of the tunnel to do his famous dance Sunday afternoon as the Ravens introduced the starting defense. The veteran’s spirits appeared to be higher this week and he spent more time in the locker room, two
“The guy’s still in great shape. The guy doesn’t look like he missed a day of practice,” said defensive lineman Arthur Jones, who added that Lewis has spent extra time with him to help him with his conditioning and the mental aspects of the game. “This is a guy who’s a great leader and is passionate and is an emotional leader. We love having him out there.”
With Lewis already practicing, the Ravens will face a decision this week with the 21-day window after his beginning practice date closing. They would have to place him on the 53-man roster or he’d remain on IR for the remainder of the year.
Ravaged by injuries at linebacker, the Ravens have relied on the combination of former practice squad members Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan as well as special-teams standout Brendon Ayanbadejo in recent weeks to hold down the inside linebacker positions in the absence of Lewis, McClain, and Dannell Ellerbe. The Baltimore run defense ranks 26th in the league, and opposing offenses have had success throwing over the middle of the field as linebackers have struggled in coverage.
Even as his eventual return will be celebrated by many longtime Ravens fans, the question remains how effective Lewis can be in the postseason as he continues to build strength in his right upper arm, which understandably experienced atrophy after the surgical procedure.
“Ray’s looked great. It’s his triceps, so he’s going to be able to move around and look like Ray Lewis,” said Ellerbe following Friday’s practice. “We haven’t had any full-speed practices, so you can’t tell how his arm is when tackling and getting off blocks. But shape-wise, he’s in shape. If he could go right now, I feel he would go.”
Though only playing in six games, Lewis ranks fifth on the team with 57 tackles. However, he struggled to shed blockers early in the season and has shown declining ability in pass coverage over the last few seasons, making his accelerated return an uncertain one in terms of what exactly the Ravens will be getting from the future Hall of Fame linebacker when he’s back on the field.
With the Ravens needing a win to clinch the AFC North and a home playoff game, there’s no guarantee that Lewis will play another game in Baltimore since his future with the organization remains in some doubt.
Plenty of rumors have circulated about whether Lewis will retire after the season and he carries a $7.2 million salary cap number in 2013, which is a hefty figure for what would be a 38-year-old linebacker. The team would be forgiven from paying his $5.4 million base salary in 2013 should they release him and would save approximately $4.35 million on their 2013 cap when subtracting the accelerated bonus money that would count as dead weight against the cap.
Regardless of what happens after this season, Lewis’ return — whenever it occurs — will be a welcome sight for a team suffering a three-game losing streak late in the season and needing a spark. The defensive help wouldn’t hurt, either.
“I’d love to have him,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I think it would be a great emotional lift, but more than that, we could use some bodies in there at linebacker.”
It appears the Ravens will need to wait a couple more weeks for that to become a possibility.