You hear it every year- and I mean EVERY year- some Steelers fan, desperately grasping at a reason to keep the Ravens down, will automatically say "yeah, but Ray Lewis won't be the same player this year."
Eventually, that will be true. But the future Hall of Fame linebacker isn't done yet. While he might not be the player he was during the 2000 season anymore, a few precious players are still Pro Bowlers a decade after a career year.
Here are the top 10 reasons why you should expect Ray Lewis to remain a force on defense for the Baltimore Ravens this season.
"That`s once again the same people who told me I was too small, the same people who said I couldn`t win a Super Bowl with our offense, the same people who said I couldn`t play in a 3-4,... Are they with me when I get up every morning at 6:30 to go to work..." -Ray Lewis
This is reason No. 1: When you're a professional football player, the moment you lose your mental edge, it's all over. When you no longer get up at 6:30 a.m. every day. When you no longer think you're the best on the field. When you start looking to other players to make it happen. That's when it's time to hang up your spikes.
Ray Lewis has said, over and over again, that he believes he has three or four years left in the tank. That he loves the game enough to keep giving it everything he has.
And you know what?
He's so good that while he's probably lost a step, he's still in the running for best linebacker in the NFL.
Ravens' fans will remember this picture without too much trouble- it's when Ray Ray took down Darren Sproles in the backfield on 4th and one to seal the win in Week Two. After the game, Lewis said that it was one of the biggest plays that he'd made in his entire career.
Prior to that play, people tended to chuckle when Ray Lewis said that his best football was still ahead of him. Well, he made them into believers last year. No reason to believe this year will be any different.
After Anquan Boldin joined the Ravens earlier in the offseason, he got a call from Ray Lewis. The first words out of Lewis's mouth, according to Boldin, were, "It's in Dallas this year." "It," of course, referred to the Super Bowl.
While Lewis has not been mulling retirement, other Ravens on the team- notably Ed Reed and Derrick Mason- definitely have been. Mason actually announced his retirement prior to last season following the death of his longtime teammate and friend Steve McNair.
It certainly helps convince veteran players to come back when they are playing on a team that many. including myself, view as legitimate contenders for a Lombardi Trophy in Dallas this year. Ray Lewis always sees the Ravens as contenders, but this year even more than most. Quite a motivator.
Look, I'm not disputing that Ray Lewis has athletic ability well beyond you or myself. I'm not even disputing that he has athletic ability beyond most other NFL players, even if he is older than many of his fellow players. What I am disputing is that his physical attributes are the main reason for his success.
Lewis's ability to make plays come from his legendary training regimen. However, more importantly, Lewis studies a lot of film. Lewis's field awareness is really something special. At times, opposing offenses do things differently than they normally would against the Ravens, in order to confuse Ray Lewis, who is still the brains of the Ravens' elite defense.
The play he made against Sproles, for example, was primarily a function of film study. After the game, he explained that he had recognized the formation before the snap and as such timed it perfectly. Dick Enberg, who announced the game on CBS, announced at the time, "Who else? The many time All-Pro Ray Lewis, almost as if he knew what was coming."
Well Dick, he DID know what was coming. That's why he's as good as he is, and that's why he'll remain a good player in this league for as long as he so chooses.
No one disputes that the Ravens have been Ray Lewis's team for over a decade now. He is one of the main reasons for their regular success on the field. Similar to a franchise QB, the pieces around him have changed over the years.
The man in the middle has not.
Lewis has long since embraced that burden and the responsibilities that come with it. He knows what is expected and required of him. I very much doubt that he would ever put himself in a position to fail. If he realized that he could no longer shoulder the burden of leadership effectively, it would be my guess that he would retire rather than continue to play and watch his abilities decline.
As a leader, he is the one the other players- especially on defense- look to for guidance. The pressure from his teammates and friends to perform will keep him motivated to remain the Man in Baltimore.
This is hardly unique to this year. The Ravens have a proud tradition on the defensive side of the ball. Lewis has never been the only playmaker the Ravens have had on defense. While the cornerback position might look a little bit shaky, the Ravens appear set at all the other positions on defense.
Ed Reed appears ready to return at safety to form a tandem with Dawan Landry. Haloti Ngata leads an experienced group of defensive linemen in front of Lewis. Of course, the Ravens have a stable of great linebackers, including pass rushing specialist Terrell Suggs.
Lewis is still a great player. But even an average player would benefit from playing with those names around him. Lewis will be no different.
Ray Lewis's stats last year:
16 games started. 95 tackles. Three sacks. Seven passes defended. Two forced fumbles. One fumble recovery.
Ray Lewis's career averages:
13.86 games started. 83.78 tackles. 2.61 sacks. 3.93 passes defended. 0.86 forced fumbles. 1.07 fumble recoveries.
*tackles data not available before 2001 season
**includes 2002/2005 seasons when Lewis was injured and played a relatively small number of games
Lewis didn't have a career year last season, but his numbers were better than his career averages. He's played in 16 games for two consecutive seasons.
It's hard to argue that he's declining when the numbers don't back it up. I expect more of the same from him in 2010.
As I mentioned in the previous slide, Ray Lewis has started all 16 games for two consecutive seasons. That is the first time he's done that since the 2000 and 2001 seasons.
One of the main reasons that a lot of players eventually retire from football is the physical toll the game exacts on a player's body. While Ed Reed is still a great player, he's never been the same tackler since the neck injury that has had him considering retirement for the last few years.
Lewis has no such problems. Guaranteed he doesn't recover from games as quickly now as he did ten years ago. His playing weight has increased to 260 pounds as his career has gone on. and it seems to help him hold up more effectively.
When a player can still play at 100 percent and be mostly pain free (I say mostly because this is the NFL, after all), that player is obviously going to be more effective than the same player with an injury limiting mobility or application of strength. Thankfully for Ravens fans, Lewis is healthy coming into the 2010 campaign.
Bottom line, until he hangs up his spikes, Ray Lewis will expect himself to be the guy to come through in the clutch when the Ravens need a big play. One thing Lewis has always done, when healthy, is play well when expectations are at their highest. He responds to pressure better than most players ever could.
As Ravens fans, we know all about local expectations this year- Super Bowl or bust. By no means would John Harbaugh be on the hot seat for making the playoffs but not getting to the Super Bowl again.
Lewis knows, though he may not admit it, that he can't keep playing like this forever. With Mason, Reed, and other key veterans mulling retirement, the Ravens' window is closing.
Pressure's on. Translation: Lewis will play well.
"I already believe I am the best linebacker in the game. Now, I have to show one more thing- that I am the most dominating, influential person in the game and the best football player to ever put on a pair of cleats." -Ray Lewis
If you're going to be the GOAT, you have to have everything- stats, accolades, MVP awards, Pro Bowls, and perhaps most importantly... Rings.
Yes, rings. Plural. Lewis already has one, as a member of the 2000 Ravens defense, which is arguably the single greatest defense of all time (though even as a Ravens fan I would disagree with that assessment in favor of the 1986 Giants). But he doesn't have a second one.
Ray Lewis uses the platform he's created for himself as an NFL icon to support lots of causes that he believes in- fitness, football, research, you name it.
He's said it since he arrived in the league, though- none of those things was his primary goal.
To be the Greatest of All Time, Lewis needs to do even more. I'd rank him in the top ten players of all time right now. But there are others who I'd put ahead of him. Guys like Joe Montana. Why? Rings. As the leader of a team, you are measured by how much that team wins.
The best way to add to his already impressive legacy?
Bring home some titles. Make the Baltimore Ravens the next great dynasty. Thankfully, he knows that- Ravens fans, it's going to be an awesome ride in 2010.
Thanks for reading guys, hope you enjoyed it.