The news was both shocking and expected: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced that he will retire from the NFL when his team's playoff run ends, closing the door on a legendary career that has spanned 17 years and included numerous postseason appearances, Pro Bowl accolades, Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Super Bowl MVP.
Ray Lewis told the team today "this will be my last ride."
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 2, 2013
As a physical and spiritual leader of his team—not just with his defense—Lewis' presence in the Ravens locker room will be missed, creating a void that no one will be capable of immediately—or perhaps even ever—filling. But when it comes to finding someone to take his place on the field, Baltimore won't have any trouble bouncing back from his retirement.
Prior to the 2012 season, Lewis knew that his time was nearly up when it came to his football career. He lost weight in the offseason to help offset his diminishing skills, trying to gain speed to keep up with a younger generation of running backs and tight ends. However, his on-field struggles to start the year contributed to the Ravens' lack of success on defense, especially against the run.
Then, in Baltimore's Week 6 contest against the Dallas Cowboys, Lewis suffered a torn triceps. Though initially anticipated to return before the end of the regular season—perhaps in his team's Week 16 game against the Denver Broncos—he remained on injured reserve (with the designated to return tag) until after that game. He will likely return to the field this Sunday when the Ravens host the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round of this season's playoffs.
Lewis' 2012 doesn't begin to tell the whole story of his career nor does it define it. It is the entirety of the Lewis Experience that has made him a legend in Baltimore and beyond. And it is why, though the Ravens will still be able to put a strong defense on the field, there will still be something missing without Lewis there in the coming years.
Practically speaking, the Ravens already have players who can effectively step up and fill Lewis' on-field shoes—Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain (that was until McClain's season also ended early with a spinal cord contusion). McClain and then Ellerbe were tasked with doing just that while Lewis was sidelined with his arm injury this season, the two moving from a situational roles to begin the season to semi-rotating starters.
Ellerbe ended the regular season with 92 combined tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, while McClain had 79 combined tackles—not Lewis-at-his-prime numbers, no, but effective ones that kept the Ravens from allowing any additional teams to rush for more than 200 yards in a game. The linebackers also helped keep the opponents' rushing totals to under 100 yards, more often than not. Chances are, either McClain or Ellerbe will take Lewis' spot moving forward.
That does mean that there are other decisions to make in Baltimore's linebacking corps. Ellerbe's natural position is as a weak-side linebacker, not in the middle. If Ellerbe is permanently shifted to middle linebacker, then either McClain or Brendon Ayanbadejo will be promoted to starting weak-side backer, or Josh Bynes or Albert McClellan could shift as well.
McClain is more naturally suited to play middle linebacker, but he'd need to be spelled on certain downs, as he's not much of a pass-rusher. Though Lewis isn't either—just 48 of his 453 total snaps this year have been in the pass rush—McClain's pass-rushing snaps are even fewer and farther between, with 60 on 753 total snaps thus far. Ellerbe may prove to be better-suited for middle linebacking duties, therefore—he's been in on the pass rush in 88 of his 667 total snaps (data courtesy Pro Football Focus), and has proven to be the more well-rounded linebacker.
Baltimore's linebacker situation is also not as straightforward as it seems. There are free agency issues to deal with, all while the salary cap is set to remain at around $121 million this year, and the Ravens look to again be pushing close to that ceiling. Bynes, Ellerbe and Paul Kruger are all unrestricted free agents in 2013, and McClellan is a restricted free agent. With Lewis' retirement, the Ravens cannot let all four of these men walk—they had depth issues at linebacker this year as it were, prior to Lewis' announcement.
Trying to retain at least three of the four (Ellerbe, Kruger, McClellan or Bynes) could affect everything from potential negotiations with quarterback Joe Flacco (leading to a contract instead of the possibly more-expensive franchise tag) to who they can and cannot add to the team through the free-agent market. Replacing Lewis on the field can be done—they have the personnel at present to do it—but the financial aspect makes it a trickier situation than it appears to be on the surface.
In terms of leadership, however, and motivation, Lewis has no parallel on the Ravens' roster nor elsewhere in the league. Lewis' 2,050 combined tackles, 41.5 sacks, 19 forced fumbles (and 19 fumble recoveries), 31 interceptions and 119 passes defensed are all remarkable numbers, even over a 17-year span, and it's hard to imagine anyone coming close to hitting those marks, let alone simply being a starting linebacker for that amount of time.
But those statistics aren't the only reason why Lewis is a household name in the NFL. There's always talk of the "intangibles" that a player possesses, but it's almost as if Lewis has the "intangibles" market cornered. That's something the Ravens cannot replace, nor should they look to—"finding the next so-and-so" is mostly a foolish quest for any team that embarks upon it.
After 17 years in the NFL, it was clear that Lewis' retirement was imminent. It should come as no surprise to anyone. The Ravens can certainly field a strong, dangerous defense without the intimidation factor of Lewis among their linebackers. As long as they realize that there are no others like him—and that there doesn't need to be—they'll be fine. Maybe they will be a little less hyped up, a little less inspired as they were when Lewis found the exact right words at the exact right moment, but that too will pass.
At least the Legend of Ray Lewis was their legend, and no one else's.