After 16 seasons in the NFL, everyone can pretty much agree that Ray Lewis is nearing the tail end of his career. Although he is still playing at a high level and has remained relatively free from injuries, he's got to hang up the cleats sometime soon.
Although he'll never say it, Lewis has to know this too. As recently as August of last year, Lewis talked of retiring should the Ravens win the Super Bowl. Although that failed to materialize, one has to think that if the Ravens win a Super Bowl this year retirement will be awfully tempting for Lewis.
One thing that isn't in doubt though is Lewis's status for the 2012 season. He will be back and despite being 37 years old, he will still play like he's one of the best linebackers in the league.
It takes a lot to be a dominant player in the NFL and even more so when you're in your mid-30s. But thanks to the following reasons, Lewis has what it takes to continue dominating in 2012.
Whether it's the playoffs in January or offseason conditioning in June, Ray Lewis gives 100 percent. However what might be most admirable is how he works out when there is no one else around.
A few years ago Lewis detailed just what those workouts look like in a piece written for Men's Fitness. After waking up at 8 am, Lewis does an ab rollouts on a steel wheel. He then does a 45 minute hip circuit that includes stretching and a hard massage with a foam roller.
It is then that Lewis goes out to the beach for a workout that he calls "muscle confusion." This includes wind sprints with cones on the sand at 10, 20 and 30 yards away. Oh, he's wearing a 45-pound weight vest while he's doing this.
For many normal people and even lots of NFL players, they would be exhausted after this one workout. But Lewis isn't done as instead he still has yet to begin his actual workout.
This workout includes all sorts of great weight exercises such as bench presses and bicep curls. During these workouts Lewis constantly changes the weight and amount of reps/sets that he does so he can both hit different parts of his muscles and so he can keep his muscles guessing. He closes out the workout with a jog on the beach, of course wearing his 45-pound weight vest.
Lewis's workouts are not for the faint of heart and it is clear that they have worked. In addition to these workouts, Lewis keeps a tight grip on his nutritional habits too, mostly sticking to fish and vegetables. He hasn't eaten pork in 12 years and he avoids fast food like the plague.
It is no stretch to say that Lewis's workouts are part of what makes him so good. And it'll be this ridiculous work ethic that will keep him playing at a dominant level in 2012.
Part of what makes Ray Lewis so special is the leadership that he provides on the field. Lewis is like a general on the field and he knows how to motivate his teammates to play at their very best.
Today's Ravens defense stacks up pretty well, even when considering the team's rich defensive tradition. Although there are serious doubts about Terrell Suggs's ability to play this season, there are still a lot of other great defenders playing alongside Lewis.
Haloti Ngata has been a major reason why Lewis's career has lasted so long. The massive defensive tackle takes away blockers and allows Lewis to have free reign on the sideline. Thanks to Ngata, Lewis still remains one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the NFL.
The secondary is also set behind him. Though he's been hinting at retirement, Ed Reed is still a force to be reckoned with and the opposing quarterback must account for him or risk turning the ball over.
There are also rising stars like Lardarius Webb who is developing into a shutdown corner. And there are players like Pernell McPhee and Paul Krueger, who will lean on Lewis's leadership as they try to replace Suggs's sack input.
The above video is only from two seasons ago. This was the 2010 season opener, a classic defensive struggle where the Ravens prevailed over the New York Jets with a final score of 10-9.
With less than a minute left the Jets were driving, attempting to get into field-goal range. Tight end Dustin Keller tried to catch a pass across the middle. Instead what happened was he got laid out by Ray Lewis, who showed that he can still tackle as hard as anyone even at the age of 35.
Even when he's not making highlight reel tackles, Lewis still racks them up. Although he missed four games in 2011, Lewis still led the Ravens with 95 total tackles. This season broke a streak of five straight seasons where Lewis had over 100 tackles.
During every season that's he has been healthy, Lewis has gotten over 100 combined tackles. This includes a peak of 161 tackles, reached in both 2001 and 2003. Whether he's in pass coverage or trying to hunt down the running back, it's virtually a guarantee that Lewis will make his presence known with at least one tackle in just about every game.
Ray Lewis has now experienced four consecutive playoff berths with the Ravens. This is an amazing display of consistency for a team that flip-flopped between winning and losing records during the early part of the 2000s. Even more impressively, the Ravens have made it to the divisional round or further during all four years, the only team to do so in this time span.
But with no Super Bowls to show for that four-year stretch, that means there has been lots of playoff heartbreak. From surrendering a 21-7 lead to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 postseason to the interception touchdown from Troy Polamalu in the 2008 AFC Championship, it's been brutal seeing the Ravens make their playoff exits. Playoff exits that are far sooner then they should be.
The AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots this past season was on a whole other level of pain. The Ravens thoroughly outplayed the Patriots with Joe Flacco finally having that great postseason game his critics had demanded while the Ravens defense made Tom Brady look ordinary the whole game. Yet it all ended first with the Lee Evans drop and then with Billy Cundiff's infamous wide left kick.
Last year more than any other, the Ravens had to know that they were good enough to win a Super Bowl. And even with offseason troubles like Terrell Suggs's injury and Ed Reed's drama, the Ravens are still that good.
Lewis knows this and he's got to be fired up about it. Eleven long years have passed since he won Super Bowl MVP at the youthful age of 25. He is the only player remaining from that championship team and the only player on the Ravens team with a Super Bowl ring.
It's time for the Harbaugh era Ravens to prove they were more than just contenders. Time for Lewis to get a second ring and Reed to get one in the twilight of his career. Time for Flacco to finally silence the critics and show he can be a championship winning quarterback.
Even though the 2012 season hasn't started, the Ravens are approaching the year with that mentality. Lewis will be leading the way for perhaps his final season in the NFL. There can be no better way for him to go out then for him to give football fans one more stellar season and then walk away from New Orleans with a second Super Bowl ring.