Ray Lewis has accomplished just about everything an NFL player could hope to over the course of his professional career. The future Hall of Fame middle linebacker has defined a franchise and a generation of football—an extremely rare feat for a defensive player.
Now retired at the age of 37, Lewis takes on a new challenge that is as daunting as facing a 250-pound fullback on 3rd-and-goal: sports broadcasting. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year will officially join ESPN for next season's NFL coverage, appearing on Monday Night Countdown, Sunday NFL Countdown and SportsCenter.
Talking heads on sports networks are easy targets for criticism. From the comfort of your own home, it's easy to second-guess every argument being laid out, no matter how carefully constructed.
As a former player making the transition to analyst, talking about the sport you have played for decades is no simple task when the cameras are rolling. Regardless of expertise, it can be nerve-wracking to speak eloquently and effectively with a limited time frame, especially alongside other seasoned pros behind the booth.
Of course, if there's one man who would have little trouble getting comfortable in this setting, it’s Ray Lewis. The man is as well known for his public speaking as he is for being the best sideline-to-sideline linebacker in the history of the game.
Finding a Role
The key for Lewis will be to find the right role at his new home, as not all analyst jobs are the same. Lewis could probably do play-by-play if he had to, but if he and ESPN want to get the most out of his tremendous potential as a television personality, they need to find him a niche in which fans can identify with what he is saying.
Ray Lewis a unique analyst “prospect” for two reasons. Obviously, he excels as a speaker in public forums, but what really sets him apart is his one-of-a-kind understanding of the game on the defensive side of the ball. His intellect is a big reason he was able to play at a high level for as long as he did, even after losing a lot of his speed and agility.
Some of the best ex-player film junkies around include ESPN’s Trent Dilfer and Ron Jaworski, who genuinely spend hours locked inside a dark room to find the truth behind the tape.
However, those players are both ex-quarterbacks who understand the mechanics of different positions and how to evaluate players from an offensive perspective. That's much different from the type of film analysis Lewis did in preparation for his next opponent.
Lewis was not looking at Steelers tape to find out if he would trade for Ben Roethlisberger. Rather, he would look at trends in play-calling and player tendencies. In other words, he was looking for ways to beat his opponent rather than analyzing their footwork or technique.
What Lewis may be able to do best is something similar to what Brian Baldinger does on NFL Network’s NFL Playbook, where coaches’ tape is broken down to find where teams can exploit matchups and gain personnel advantages.
The difference that Lewis will bring is his innate ability to find tendencies in players that few others can. Whether it is a scratch of the shoulder, lining up with the left foot first or the way a player gets into their stance before the snap, Lewis can point it out and give the viewer an insight they're unlikely to get anywhere else.
Obviously, Lewis' experience is not limited to the film room. With 17 years under his belt—which is almost unheard of in the NFL—Lewis must have a massive mental archive of stories and locker room experiences that cameras did not capture.
Not only was this man in NFL locker rooms for playoff and Super Bowl games, he was the one making the speeches during those games. Lewis has insight that no one on this planet could replicate.
Incorporating His Personality
Of course, Lewis is no cave-dwelling, button-up film junkie. He is one of the most popular and camera-friendly players in NFL history, with countless documentaries and specials made about his ability to captivate an audience and harness energy with his intense demeanor.
As good as he is in the pregame huddle, Lewis needs to refrain from being “over the top” and a bit too intense for midday SportsCenter bits. Lewis is going to be dripping with brilliant analysis, and it would be a shame if his sometimes excessive personality got in the way of that.
One person Lewis should emulate is one of the newest and fastest-rising analysts at ESPN: former Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg.
Greenberg’s attractive and engaging personality allowed him to recruit as well as any coach in the school’s history, but he has managed a way to control his passion and deliver his message clearly. He was able to get some practice for a career in broadcasting by hosting film-room sessions in campus dining halls, talking deep X’s and O’s with students over lunch.
Now, Greenberg is already getting a ton of airtime on ESPN’s premium shows, such as the live morning edition of SportsCenter, and he is leading the network’s coverage of this year’s NCAA tournament.
I know this is impossible to quantify, but I think Seth Greenberg gets more airtime than anybody else in Bristol.— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) March 15, 2013
Of course, Lewis needs to be his own man and not mimic exactly what Greenberg has done to make him so successful.
On the other hand, he needs to make sure he does not become the next Warren Sapp. Sapp will enter the Hall of Fame this August, but on camera, he adds little to no analysis, relying on an over-the-top persona and bold claims to get by.
Worst of all, he has a tendency to speak as if he is not on network television.
Somebody, perhaps Warren Sapp, said "This is the same bleeping segment we had Mike Lombardi do. The bleeping Bill Belichick bleeping angle."— Greg A. Bedard (@GregABedard) March 12, 2013
As Lewis will learn quickly, he will need to find a balance that will maximize his infinite knowledge of the game and electric personality.
How ESPN Can Help
If Lewis is going to reach his incredible potential as a broadcaster, ESPN needs to do their part to put him in a position to succeed.
ESPN needs to give Lewis his own camera time, as his presence will dwarf everyone else's, especially at first. Sticking Ray Lewis at the end of the NFL Live table for debate is not going to get the most out of him.
Of course, it would be asking a lot for ESPN to budget a 30-minute slot just for Lewis to spew over anything he wants, but Lewis needs to be on camera by himself, stating his mind and giving his unique perspective on the game.
After all, when Ray Lewis speaks, most people want to listen.
If executed well, Lewis has a chance to quickly become not just one of the top sports personalities, but one of the top media personalities. Few men have walked this earth who can command attention like Lewis, but his energy must be harnessed for him to communicate effectively.
Generally speaking, betting against Ray Lewis is not a good idea, whether he is trying to stop Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game or nail a two-minute Monday Night Countdown segment. If used properly, there is no way he will fail as an NFL analyst.