Though Lewis and the Ravens have not returned to the Super Bowl since winning it in 2001, Lewis has not lost his drive and determination. Regardless of anything else, it has been the dominance of the Raven defense that has kept them relevant for the better part of the past decade.
At the heart of this team, on both sides of the ball, is Ray Lewis.
“I live to impact people,” Lewis described in NFL Network’s series, A Football Life: Ray Lewis.
Whether that impact is in his interactions with the people and fans of Baltimore or the crushing blows that he puts on opposing offenses weekly, each side of his life affects the other. What results is that Lewis has been discussed as one of the best football players of all time, a title which persists into the 2012 season.
“It wasn’t football that drove me,” A Football Life shows Lewis insisting to a group of students at Harvard University. “It was making sure that [a] man would never put his hands on my mom again that drove me.”
It seems that football is a means to an end for Ray Lewis, who has been to 13 Pro Bowls.
At a young age, football was an outlet for a young boy who was without a father and watched his mother go through abusive relationships, but now it has given him the financial stability to provide for his children.
In an interview with WFAN New York this past week, Lewis explains his success as, “always [having] a little favor in [his] life.”
Perhaps that is true as, Lewis is one of the only active players remaining from a 1996 draft class that included Keyshawn Johnson, Tedy Bruschi and Ravens teammate Jonathan Ogden.
Statistically, there is no reason to think Lewis’ production has experienced any sort of drop off the last 17 years.
For nearly two decades, the number of tackles that Lewis has recorded has been consistently above 130 for any season that he has participated in a full season, with the exception of 2007.
Any year that Lewis has missed time, his stats would still have been on pace to eclipse 130 tackles.
Through five games so far in 2012, Lewis’ 36 solo tackles are tied for second-most in the NFL and he's on pace to reach 115.2 tackles, which would be his best individual mark since 2003.
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”—Matthew 6:1
More than once during A Football Life—or just about any time Lewis is wired up on a sideline—he could be heard making references to divine intervention in a given game, telling fellow players, “It’s His will, dawg. It’s His will.”
The frequency of comments like this got me thinking: Why does Ray Lewis not receive the same criticism as Tim Tebow?
Even more surprising is that the comments were often directed to Terrell Suggs, who was outspoken on Tim Tebow and his religion last season.
I would argue that whereas Tebow externalizes his religion, praying on the sidelines and wearing a weekly Bible verse on his eye black, Lewis internalizes his spirituality.
Rather than preaching the Good News, Lewis finds strength in it and manifests that strength in trying to motivate his team. Both have had their great moments as leaders, but the result of this faith is that, where Tebow goes, distraction ensues.
Comparatively, without Lewis, the Ravens’ clubhouse may well implode, particularly given the bombastic nature of Joe Flacco’s comments in the past.
Lewis says that his “reason for being here” is that he “[wants] to make this defense the greatest in football.”
Although the Ravens have the 20th-ranked defense in yards against and the 23rd-ranked defense in opponents' passing yards, the Ravens are 4-1 on the year and 3-1 in games that were decided by a touchdown or less.
One specific game that the Ravens lost by less than a touchdown was the 2011 AFC Championship. While the easy scapegoat in this game was kicker Billy Cundiff, who missed the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, Ray Lewis has been ever the humble leader telling reporters that:
"What you gonna do, put that on two men? 'Oh, Lee [Evans] should have caught the ball.’ ‘Oh, Billy should have made the kick.' Maybe I should have made a tackle in the third quarter…we came here as a team, we locked and loaded as a team, let’s make sure we leave as a team.”
It is easy for a head coach to tell one of his stars that he is a great leader, or even to say “I love you,” but in such a hard-nosed and relentless sport, to elicit that same degree of respect from other star players around the league speaks volumes of the respect that can only be earned as an influential player.
Such is the case with Lewis.
Following a Ravens Week 1 victory over the rival Steelers in 2011, NFL Network shows head coach John Harbaugh embracing Lewis and smiling, telling him, “You’re carrying us on your back because you’re a great leader…Hey, I ever tell you that I love you?”
Lewis’ season ended the same way in New England when, after losing the AFC Championship, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady came up to him saying, “You’re the best. I love you, man. I mean it.”
Arguably the greatest barometer of excellence is the perception of excellence from your peers.
Over the entirety of his career, Ray Lewis has earned that respect on the field and in many aspects of his life, and it is for those reasons he is still one of the top players in the league.