Ray Lewis may not have the same sideline-to-sideline ability that he once did, but he still offers an equally declining Ravens squad something considerably more than just his ability to tackle ball-carriers.
He offers hope, inspiration and, perhaps most important, each member of the organization a chance to play a significant role in writing the final chapter of one of the sport’s most legendary talents and personalities.
This makes the Ravens secretly one of the most deadly teams in the playoffs this season.
Last Sunday, Lewis returned to action for the first time in 11 weeks and managed to rack up 13 tackles, including nine solo, but was still noticeably not the same player he once was. It appeared the coaches knew what they had with Ray’s presence and decided to implement a defense that covered up Lewis’ physical limitations.
As a result, his responsibilities were reduced to playing “hole” coverage in zone and utilized (to minimal success) as a spot rusher in man-to-man coverage. There were no plays throughout the game where Lewis was asked to run with a specific player in coverage.
This strategy was clearly intended to give Ray the freedom to do what he does best: find the ball and make plays. However, even that ability was more limited than usual. Several times during the game, Ray was outmatched—and even pancaked a few times—by blockers.
So how could a dinosaur with one good arm and a pair of cement shoes actually make his team more dangerous than ever?
Imagine, if you will, your body is aching from the accumulative punishment of 20-plus games—you're tired, fatigued and struggling to execute against the guy in front of you.
You stand there, head hanging low, blood dripping off of your gloves, and you slowly look up...and see Ray Lewis staring right into your soul. He walks up to you and stops mere inches from your face. Paralyzed, you cannot look away. Ray leans in closer and says to you:
“C’mon dog, I’m gonna need every bit of what that body has left, you gonna have all the time in the world to sit on a couch, relax and be ordinary.”
Then it hits you as you realize the totality of the moment; a unique moment in life where you have Ray Lewis in your face, just like so many times before, only this time you understand that this could be the last. “Today…” He continues with increasing vigor. “…today I need you to sweat and bleed a little bit more for that color purple on your chest.
"Dig a little bit deeper to get us one game closer to that ultimate finish line. We need you right now more than ever, I need you... and I may never need you again after this day. Put your faith in your body and in your lord to see you through this day with no regrets. Ride with me one more time and let’s see what kinda' miracles we can make here today!”
Though I made this scenario up, I absolutely didn’t make up what type of leader Ray Lewis is and has been throughout his career. We can only imagine how that leadership, emotion and passion is elevated when he’ll have the honor and privilege of strapping on a football helmet, potentially for the last time.
One might think the playoffs are the one time of year when players need no extra motivation. Though motivation in the postseason is less difficult to come by, there’s always still that extra inch a player can be pushed. And since this is a game of inches, that extra inch here and there unquestionably makes a difference.
Ray’s value as an inspirational leader far outweighs his diminished physical tools. His teammates have an uncanny love and respect for him that I was fortunately able to witness firsthand briefly as a former teammate of his. In regards to Ray’s ability to garner admiration from those around him, I’ve personally never seen its equal in any avenue of life, football or otherwise. His presence commands an undeniable gravitas which can humble even the most boisterous of individuals.
Come Saturday, Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens will enter the divisional round of the playoffs united for the last time, ready to face an old adversary in Peyton Manning, a legend of equal proportion in his own right.
The chess matches that have gone on between these two future Hall of Famers throughout the years has surprisingly been a one-sided affair. Manning has never lost against the Ravens, and you can be sure Ray Lewis would like to rectify this blemish on his legacy and get a final win against Manning once and for all.
This is a classic in the making as two of the NFL’s all-time great leaders go head-to-head for the last time ever.
Perhaps last Sunday was a game for shaking off the rust of an 11-week layoff. Maybe Lewis will even come out against the Broncos lubed up and refueled like a 25-year-old kid. But the likely scenario here is that he’ll have to make the bulk of his plays by implementing experience and the finely tuned skills of anticipation like never before. Fortunately, if anyone can do it, Ray is that guy.
One thing we should be able to count on above all else is a Ravens team that will be fired up and ready to play perhaps more than any team left in this postseason. The question remains, however: Will their devoted and inspired energy be enough to overcome the Peyton Manning-led Broncos, complete with a stellar defense and riding an 11-game winning streak?
Will this be the last showdown for No. 52, or will he inspire others toward the ultimate Hollywood ending, completed by riding off into the sunset as a Super Bowl champion one last time?
If winning gives this fan a few more chances to watch him play, I am all for it.