Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary and Ray Lewis. Putting the legendary Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker on this list of all-time greats already feels right, but Lewis' last game will have a profound effect on his legacy.
During his 17-year career, Lewis has maintained a level of play that arguably has not been equaled. With1,573 tackles, 31 interceptions, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, 13 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro selections, Lewis’ list of individual achievements can rival any player—at any position—who has ever played football.
But Lewis has been presented with a rare opportunity, and he has the chance to end his exceptional career with a great moment.
This storyline has been building from the first day of this season.
At 37 years old, he is not the player he used to be. He is not the best middle linebacker in football anymore, and there are several players at the position around the league who are much more effective when only looking at physical capabilities.
But his immense value to his team is undeniable, and there is a stark difference in how the Baltimore defense has performed with Lewis in the lineup, and with him on the sidelines.
The Ravens are 8-1 this season in games in which Lewis was playing, while they are 5-5 in games that Lewis missed from a triceps injury. In addition, Baltimore’s defense has allowed 13 points or fewer six times this season, and Lewis played in four of those games.
To hammer home the point, Baltimore ranked 12th in points allowed this year, when it had ranked third in each of the past four seasons.
Much has been made about the decline of the Ravens defense this season, but the unit’s poor play was a result of Lewis’ absence. With its leader back in the middle of the field, the defense is once again playing extremely well.
This has set Lewis up for an ideal ending to his career.
While first impressions are important, last impressions carry even more weight. Every sports fan wishes that Michael Jordan’s career had ended with the jump shot he hit against the Utah Jazz to win the 1996 NBA title.
But a lackluster comeback with the Washington Wizards soiled his storybook ending.
Lewis has already come back from what was supposed to be a season-ending injury, announced his retirement and energized his team (which lost four of its final five games of the regular season).
Regardless of whether or not the Ravens win the Super Bowl, Lewis’ name will belong on the list of the greatest middle linebackers who ever played, and many football fans will put him at the top.
Where do you rank Ray Lewis among history's best middle linebackers?
He has already avoided the awkward ending so many great athletes have suffered through. Lewis’ final season has been characterized by greatness, which something many legends cannot claim.
But if he does end his career with a victory, Lewis’ lasting image will be of him hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in his final professional game.
This accomplishment will be different from the awards and the stats, and it would not be quantifiable. This ending would be poetic and unforgettable.
Athletes rarely get the chance to close out their careers with a championship, and it is even less common for one of Lewis’ stature to be presented with such an opportunity. He is one of the NFL’s all-time greats regardless of what happens in the Super Bowl. But if he wins, he will be one of the special few to get the endings their career deserves.