Breaking Down Ray Lewis' Journey to Super Bowl XLVII

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Breaking Down Ray Lewis' Journey to Super Bowl XLVII
Al Bello/Getty Images
One more game for Ray Lewis.

Ray Lewis announced his retirement from the NFL earlier in January, and now he and the Baltimore Ravens have a chance to win Super Bowl XLVII.

Per Nate Davis of USA Today:

The longtime face of the franchise announced Wednesday that he will retire after the playoffs following 17 mostly sterling seasons, telling his teammates that "this will be my last ride."

Here's the full video of Lewis' announcement, courtesy of the Ravens' official YouTube page:

Lewis is easily among the greatest to ever play at his position, but he was also ranked No. 18 on NFL Network's Top 100 players of all time.

So, let's rewind and take a glorious look back at one of the best players in NFL history.

 

The Miami Hurricanes a.k.a. Linebacker U

Mike Powell/Getty Images

The Miami Hurricanes have groomed quite a few quality linebackers, but Lewis changed the position at the school forever.

Prior to his total impact, the most notable linebacker from the 'Canes was Ted Hendricks. Hendricks certainly was no slouch, although he was the lone standout at the position in the school's storied history. Since Lewis left Miami, the Hurricanes have produced other 'backer studs such as Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason and D.J. Williams.

While at Linebacker U, Lewis enjoyed a strong freshman campaign in 1993, but went off the charts with 152 tackles as a sophomore and 160 as a junior. Then he forwent his senior season and was selected No. 26 overall in the 1996 NFL draft by the expansion Ravens.

 

First 4 Seasons

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Ray Lewis in 1998.

From 1996 through 1999, there was little team success.

Baltimore's return to pro football resulted in a dismal 24-39-1 record. There were no playoff appearances and finishing 8-8 in 1999 was the team's best record in its brief history.

During this time frame, Lewis accounted for 582 tackles, 13 sacks, seven picks and 32 passes defended. In short, combined with his reliable consistency and dominant play, Baltimore clearly had every reason to believe the 2000 NFL season would result in continued improvement.

But first, there was an off-the-field incident that affected the entire NFL landscape, as well as America.

According to CNNSI.com in June 2000:

A judge Monday approved a deal allowing Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis to avoid murder charges and jail time by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and testifying against two co-defendants.

Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner sentenced Lewis to 12 months' probation, the maximum sentence for a first-time offender. 

[Don] Samuel [Lewis' defense attorney] said Lewis will testify against his co-defendants as part of the deal, which also calls for aggravated assault charges against the linebacker to be dropped.

Without much direct evidence linking Lewis to the stabbings of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that Lewis participated in a conspiracy to cover up the crime.

But that's not what he is charged with. Lewis and two friends, [Joseph] Sweeting and [Reginald] Oakley, are facing only the more serious charges of murder, felony murder and aggravated assault.

Lewis was then fined by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, per Dave Goldberg of ABC News in August 2000:

The latest step came Thursday when commissioner Paul Tagliabue levied a $250,000 fine against Baltimore’s All-Pro middle linebacker, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice after originally being charged with murder.

He said that by not telling police the full story, Lewis “fueled a public perception that he had something to hide.”

“In doing so,” Tagliabue added, “he put his own livelihood and reputation needlessly at risk and he caused great harm to other NFL players and to the league.”

By the time this unfortunate incident was in the past, the 2000 season was on the verge of kicking off. Even though football is a game or, if you will, a form of entertainment at the professional level, it can also teach us about life.

For Lewis, he was part of something no one would ever want to be involved with. And in an article by Bob Carter of ESPN, Lewis stated:

All I'm guilty of is being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. But I feel like what I'm most guilty of is being successful.

How a person responds to a threat to their livelihood as they know it after such an incident says a lot about them. Given the severity of the situation, it would have been easy for anyone to lose focus and fail.

Instead, it served as fuel for Lewis and the Ravens the subsequent fall. Lewis channeled his motivation onto the gridiron and recorded 136 tackles, three sacks, two picks and defended six passes.

He was named the 2000 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Baltimore finished the regular season at 12-4. Entering the postseason as the AFC's No. 4 seed, the Ravens dominated the opposition.

In four playoff games, Baltimore gave up a mere 23 points. The signature play of the postseason came from Lewis, who ripped the ball away from Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George in the divisional round. This was a snapshot perspective regarding the effort Baltimore received from Lewis:

The defense continued its dominance and shut out the New York Giants' offense in Super Bowl XXXV, as Big Blue's lone score came on a kickoff return for a touchdown.

Lewis then proceeded to earn the Super Bowl MVP award and kept steady on his Hall of Fame path. It was an impressive way to respond after dealing with a tragic offseason incident.

 

Ravens Inconsistent from 2001-07, But Lewis Maintains Elite Status

In this seven-year span, the Ravens saw just four winning seasons and went 1-3 in the postseason. Baltimore never made it past the AFC divisional round.

Still, Lewis collected 794 tackles, 14 sacks, 16 interceptions and defended 39 passes in this span.

He also won a second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2003. By logging 161 tackles, six picks, forcing two fumbles and defending seven passes, it was Lewis' best performance to date. 

One of Lewis' interceptions in 2003:

And because of such dominant play every season, Lewis became the first defensive player to be the Madden Football cover athlete in the summer of 2004. This commercial was a hit as well:

In 2006, Lewis experienced the most heartwrenching loss at that point in his career courtesy of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. That year, Lewis and Co. earned the AFC's No. 2 seed at 13-3, but fell to Indy, 15-6, at home in the divisional round. Indy went on to win Super Bowl XLI.

The opportunity to avenge this loss would have to wait.

 

2008 Through 2013 NFL Playoffs

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How many Super Bowl appearances will Baltimore make with John Harbaugh as the head coach?

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John Harbaugh became the Ravens' head coach in 2008, and Baltimore has made the playoffs every year since.

That level of consistency, from a team perspective, is better than any stretch of seasons Lewis has been a part of—which is saying a lot.

Going 8-4 in the postseason to date under Harbaugh, the Ravens finally got over the AFC-title hump. Lewis and Co. fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 conference championship game, and then to Tom Brady and the Patriots last year.

Lewis, though, almost retired a year ago. Prior to kickoff of the 2011 season, he made this statement, according to Mike Freeman of CBS Sports:

My son will be a junior this year. I only play this game for another ring. If we can win it this year, and I'm being brutally honest with you, if we win it this year, I'm gone to then spend as much time as I can with him. I'm gone to be with my son. And I feel like now we have enough pieces in place to make a good run at the Super Bowl.

That run happened to come this season as opposed to last. And once Lewis announced his plans to retire when the New Year commenced, Twitter exploded:

Arthur Moats, The Guy Who Also Ended Brett Favre's Career

 

Lawyer Milloy

 

Deion Sanders

 

Barry Sanders

 

Antonio Pierce

 

As for earning a trip to Super Bowl XLVII, getting there wasn't so easy.

Lewis played in just six regular-season games throughout 2012, his least since 2005 and the second-fewest of his illustrious career. He still managed to record 57 tackles.

Through three playoff games already, Lewis is in the midst of arguably his best postseason. With a career-best 44 tackles, there's still Super Bowl XLVII to solidify his status among pro football's best defensive postseason players.

And all this considering the Baltimore defense lined up against two of the NFL's best quarterbacks ever.

Traveling to the Mile High City in the divisional round, Lewis squared off against Peyton Manning one last time. After dropping two games to Manning-led teams in the playoffs before, Lewis and the Ravens ousted Manning's Denver Broncos in double overtime.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Next was a grudge match against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, which has evolved into quite a rivalry. In the past four postseasons (including 2012), Baltimore has traveled to New England three times.

Lewis and Co. held Brady's offense to a mere 14 points in 2009 and only 13 en route to winning this year's AFC title.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Brady afraid of Ray Lewis.

Regardless of the outcome in New Orleans, though, the legacy of Lewis and his impact on Baltimore remains distinct in comparison to the rest of pro football.

During the modern era, primarily the 21st century, the NFL has been an offense-oriented league driven by quarterback after quarterback. Brady and Manning stick out, as do Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Drew Brees.

Now, think about defense.

Without question, other defensive contemporaries such as Michael Strahan, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Charles Woodson stood apart from the rest. And the next wave featuring Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith will be great as well.

None, however, will impact pro football in the same manner as Ray Lewis. He always impacted the game to a level that had to be acknowledged, despite the pass-happy/offensively-dominated movement of this century.

With countless Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections to his name, it will all culminate in football immortality with Hall of Fame enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.

 

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