Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is one of the most recognized individuals in the country, and maybe the world. You don’t need to follow the NFL to understand the lasting impact Lewis has made on the game of football as we know it. His passion and love for the game is unparalleled, and the 15-year veteran has forever changed the way the position of linebacker is played.
What makes this fiery player so special, and how did Lewis excel way beyond all expectations?
This presentation will examine the vocal leader of the Baltimore Ravens and make a case why Lewis, upon his retirement from the NFL, should be inducted immediately into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as a first-ballot inductee.
Ray Lewis taking the field as a rookie
Ray Lewis was the fifth linebacker selected in the first round of the 1996 NFL draft—Baltimore’s inaugural season after relocating from Cleveland. Lewis was the 26th pick overall in that year’s draft.
However, not everyone shared the same excitement Baltimore did about their newly acquired rookie from the University of Miami.
Many experts expressed doubts about Lewis, saying that at just over six feet tall, he was too short to play the position.
Lewis went on to prove every critic wrong, in addition to every team that passed him up in the 1996 draft.
During his rookie campaign, Lewis led the Ravens in tackles with 110. More impressive was the fact that 15 of those tackles went for losses, a stat that led the entire NFL that season.
Because of Lewis’ shining performance, he would become the recipient of USA Today’s All-Rookie team honors.
Second-year players tend to struggle in the NFL. As for Ray Lewis, there would only be smooth sailing in his second full year at linebacker.
Lewis would continue to outshine every player on defense in 1997 and was already well on his way to becoming an emerging star. His 184-tackle effort was again an NFL best by a big margin. Three sacks and two interceptions also accompanied Lewis’ major stat line. By the end of the 1997-98 season, Lewis would find himself in the Pro Bowl—the first of his long career.
Lewis’ contributions to the Ravens continued to grow exponentially from 1998-2001, and as a result, he earned four more trips to Hawaii during that time span.
By now, most of Lewis’ critics had all but disappeared. The new leader in Baltimore enjoyed the recognition he was getting in previous years, earning Pro Bowl bids in five of his past six seasons as a professional football player.
However, the accolades Lewis would receive in 2000 as part of the Super Bowl champion Ravens would far exceed his previous achievements.
Along with his fourth-consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, Lewis earned the title of Defensive Player of the Year. In addition, Lewis would receive his first ever Sporting News All-Pro selection for the benchmarks he shattered during the Ravens' Super Bowl run. Let's not forget to mention that he was also named Super Bowl XXXV MVP.
By the end of the 2000 campaign, Baltimore’s defense would make history. Lewis led a squad that only surrendered 165 points to opponents—the fewest in NFL history. The team’s four shutouts were one shy of a single-season record, and the unit finished tops in six defensive categories.
Lewis was now more popular than ever, and he gained the respect of fans and fellow teammates as he climbed the ranks of the all-time greats.
Lewis was now the leader of the Baltimore Ravens.
Ray Lewis firing-up the team pre-game
During the 2001-2004 seasons, Baltimore’s offense started to sputter. When most of the defense vocalized their discontent over the Ravens offensive woes, Lewis was the man who rallied the team and supported his teammates, nonetheless.
As the frustration on defense grew during this period, Lewis challenged the rest of the defense to win games for quarterbacks Elvis Grbac and first-round draft pick Kyle Boller, who captained a struggling offense.
The Ravens did just that.
Even with more All-Pro bids pouring in from nearly every major media outlet, Lewis remained focused on coaching-up and mentoring his new teammates.
Ravens LB Terrell Suggs came onto the scene in 2003 out of Arizona State. Lewis played an integral role in Suggs’ development through the years, and both players are now the cornerstone of the Baltimore linebacking corps.
Even if you’re not a Ravens fan, you can’t help notice the enthusiasm Ray Lewis brings to every game. After 15 proud years in the NFL, Lewis hasn’t lost an ounce of love for the game, and his intensity seems to grow stronger every year.
Not too many 15-year veterans of the NFL can say they still operate at a high level. Lewis is one of the few that can argue he’s in the best shape of his life, and it shows on the field.
Over the course of his career, Lewis has been selected to 11 Pro Bowls—missing out in only three seasons. Two missed opportunities were caused by injuries in 2002 and 2005.
Lewis’ 11 Pro Bowl appearances are the most by any middle linebacker in NFL history.
Lewis has led the NFL in tackles five times and was named Associated Press All-Pro six times—twice second-team All-Pro.
Through all of his personal triumphs and tribulations, Lewis remained the poster child for consistency. Statistics speak volumes when it comes to how an NFL player will be remembered, and Lewis could go down as the most consistent middle linebacker of all time.
The 1996 NFL draft produced many talented linebackers, including Zach Thomas, Randall Godfrey and Tedy Bruschi—just to name a few.
None compare to what Lewis has accomplished throughout his long career. Lewis proved to be the most durable player, missing the fewest games among his fellow draft class.
As most of the linebackers from the 1996 draft have retired, Lewis continues to remain healthy while playing at a high level.
When you compare Lewis’ stats to the rest of the 1996 linebacking draft class, Lewis comes out on top every time.
NFL players in particular are often measured on how productive they remained late in their careers. Middle linebacker is one of the most physically demanding positions, and after 15 years, Ray Lewis can still keep up with the best of them.
Just last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, Lewis became only the second player in NFL history to record at least 30 interceptions and 30 sacks in his career. More impressive was the fact he did it in only 203 games—an NFL best.
Some people don’t remember distant details, so it’s important that Lewis remains playing at such a high level.
His most recent accomplishment in Carolina didn’t get much press outside of Baltimore, but it’s one that can’t be overlooked when considering number 52 for first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.
Only time will tell how many quality years Lewis has left, but at his current pace, he could feasibly play for another several years.
Over the course of Lewis’ career, he has fallen into all of the three categories above—player, motivator and coach.
While Lewis will be remembered most for his excellence at middle linebacker, his teammates and coaching staff will remember Lewis as all three personalities.
Over the past 15 years, no one can dispute the fact that Lewis made the Ravens defense what it is today. Lewis achieved this by always playing at the top of his game, but his work as a coach (in essence) on the sideline really paid off for the team.
Who knows if Lewis will pursue a coaching career after he retires from the football field, but it’s hard to imagine the Ravens legend not surrounded by the game.
We all know that off-field work doesn’t play a factor in sending an NFL star to the Hall of Fame, but it surely helps to build the complete character of an athlete.
Ray Lewis has donated to countless charities, as many pro athletes do. However, Lewis is working to make the city of Baltimore a better place.
Lately, Lewis has collaborated with the Baltimore Police Department on a training regiment for the officers that serve the people. Lewis is involved in the personal training and conditioning of the police officers.
Lewis is also working on improving the relationship between the police department and its officers, and the community of Baltimore. Lewis plays a key role in this developmental process.
Lewis looks to cement his legacy at M&T Bank Stadium and with the people who live and work in the city of Baltimore.
Ravens safety Ed Reed (front), Ray Lewis (back)
Having touched on everything, trying to make the best case for Ray Lewis becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer, we still don’t know who he’ll be up against come time for induction.
With Ravens safety Ed Reed possibly retiring in a few years, this could complicate the outcome for Lewis—as many believe Reed is also a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Many factors are taken into consideration when placing a player into the Hall of Fame, and we really don’t know who the competition is quite yet.
If the decision were to come down to Lewis and Reed, one would assume Lewis would get the nod. His career has been full of endless achievements, and he has managed to stay healthy for a good portion of his legacy.
No matter which way Lewis is voted into the Hall, no one could argue there was ever a better player, or person, to take the field in this history of the league.
Todd McGregor is a Baltimore Ravens Featured Columnist here on BleacherReport.com
Follow Todd on Twitter! Twitter.com/ravens023