Friday, February 6, 2009

Why Ray Lewis and the Ravens Need Each Other

The “face of a franchise” is a term carelessly thrown around in the world of professional sports.

What exactly does it mean? Is it simply being the team’s best player? The most marketable or outspoken? The highest paid?

More often than not, the label becomes cliché but if it were to fit one player more than any other in the National Football League, it certainly fits Ray Lewis.

Having just completed his 13th season with the Baltimore Ravens, Lewis has personified the organization since its inception in 1996. When thinking of the Ravens, it starts and finishes with an intimidating, often flamboyant, defense that will haunt your dreams. Lewis cultivated this image from the beginning, even when the players around him could not live up to his high expectations in the early years.

When considering how synonymous Lewis and the Ravens truly are, how could they now be bracing themselves for a separation?

As is usually the case in the NFL, it overwhelmingly boils down to money and the salary cap. Lewis seeks one final payday as he enters the final stretch of his surefire Hall of Fame career. On the other side, the Ravens struggle with the idea of resigning its iconic figurehead, but also a linebacker entering his 14th year, to a lucrative contract that could come at the expense of keeping other younger players on the roster.

While this scenario plays out almost every year with some player in some other city, this situation is unique. Ray Lewis is the face of the Baltimore Ravens, and Baltimore is his city.

Critics will point to Jerry Rice or Brett Favre as examples of icons finishing their careers in other cities, but these teams already had legends that had come before them. San Francisco already had Joe Montana and Steve Young; Green Bay already had Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke. With apologies to future Hall of Famer and left tackle Jonathan Ogden, Lewis stands alone for the Ravens.

It is truly rare when the face of a franchise is with the team from its very beginning. After moving from Cleveland in 1996, the Ravens were much like an expansion team with no identity. That identity quickly became Lewis’ menacing visage and has been ever since.

The Ravens simply do not feel or look like the Ravens without Lewis in the middle of the defense. While he obviously will not play forever, both Lewis and the Ravens deserve a proper departure, one that is authentic with Lewis leaving his battlefield for the final time as a Baltimore Raven.

Not only is it the way things should end for both parties involved, it also makes the most sense when looking deeper into the situation. The reality is that both the Ravens and Lewis need each other.

For the Ravens, the defense has already taken a significant hit with coordinator Rex Ryan departing to become the head coach of the New York Jets. The loss of Lewis would not only leave a hole at inside linebacker, but his football intellect may only rival Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Lewis’ reputation for watching game film is legendary and heavily influences the defense’s ability on Sundays. He has been known to call out the opponent’s exact play countless times throughout his career. Players with such instinct and intelligence come along so rarely.

Though safety Ed Reed has followed in Lewis’ footsteps with his propensity for watching film, the loss of Lewis’ mind might be a more significant loss to the Baltimore defense than his actual production at linebacker.

In addition to his intelligence, Lewis’ leadership cannot be overemphasized. Numerous players have come and gone from the Ravens’ defense and all left with a common theme: they enjoyed their best years in Baltimore. From Lional Dalton to Sam Adams, or Ed Hartwell to Duane Starks, numerous players, young and old, have left Baltimore but failed to find the success they enjoyed with the Ravens. Critics might suggest it’s the coaching staff, but many coaches have also come and gone.

The one constant has been Lewis. His ability to single-handedly raise the level of, not only his own play, but also of his teammates, is what makes a dynamic career. It’s what the greatest players in the history of professional sports are able to do time and time again.

The Ravens must also consider Lewis’ marketability. Having been the face of the franchise for 13 years, the organization cannot help but view Lewis as a valuable commodity.

Simply take a look around M&T Bank Stadium on Sundays in the fall. You’ll see an increasing number of Joe Flacco and Reed jerseys, but Lewis’ 52 is still the most commonly sported by Baltimore fans.

Lewis is not only a value to the team with his play on the field, but his name and national appeal brings an incredible amount of revenue to the organization. Lewis is clearly aware of this and wants to be compensated accordingly.

Owner Steve Bisciotti also has to be considering the potential public relations disaster of allowing Lewis to leave. The casual fan will not be thinking of salary cap implications but only that the Ravens allowed their leader to depart after a season in which they were one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It would be a difficult scenario for fans to accept, especially after the Ravens have seemingly found their quarterback after so many years in the doldrums with a putrid offense.

Perhaps the biggest reason why the Ravens need Lewis is there is no player ready to take his spot in the lineup.

Backup linebacker and special teams player Nick Greisen is a solid tackler and did a nice job filling in for an injured Lewis at the end of the 2007 season, but the drop-off at inside linebacker would be significant.

Rookie Tavares Gooden is a fellow University of Miami alum but would benefit from more of Lewis’ tutelage before taking his place in the lineup after spending most of last season on injured reserve.

A team that has finally found its franchise quarterback in Flacco would likely need Lewis to return for another season or two if they have any plans of building upon their AFC Championship appearance in 2009 or 2010.

Though the reasons why the Ravens still need Lewis might seem fairly obvious, a closer look shows that Lewis might need the Ravens more than he’s been claiming in recent weeks.

Lewis clearly wants one big final contract before his days as a player are over, but would it pay more in the future to accept a fair, but modest, contract from the Ravens? His earning potential in Baltimore will be very high long after his playing career is finished.

It’s unlikely that Lewis would have the same long-term earning potential after making a two- or three-year pit stop in another city.

An ugly departure from the place he’s called home for 13 years could potentially damage his marketability in Baltimore for years to come.

The reality is that Lewis has had it pretty good in Baltimore for many years. He shares a close relationship with Bisciotti and has even gotten away with occasionally criticizing the team’s shortcomings with little consequence.

In the offseason prior to the 2006 NFL Draft, Lewis complained about needing a big defensive tackle to keep blockers away from him and even talked about wanting to be traded if the team failed to get one. What happened? The organization drafted Haloti Ngata in the first round that year.

Another example of Lewis’ influence has been his role in acquiring veterans such as defensive backs Corey Fuller and Deion Sanders, decisions that may or may not have been good for the organization.

It’s difficult to envision another team giving Lewis the influence he has come to expect in Baltimore.

Lewis could also have a tough time playing in a market such as Dallas or New York if he, or the team, fails to live up to expectations.

His leadership is unquestioned when things are going well, but Lewis also has a reputation of occasionally sulking during losing seasons and sometimes slipping out the backdoor of the locker room without talking to reporters after a difficult loss.

Actions such as these are merely an afterthought in Baltimore but would be heavily criticized under the blistering media lights of New York or Dallas. Yes, Lewis could find success in these cities, but he could just as easily win another title in Baltimore as these cities.

Ultimately, Lewis needs to stay in Baltimore in order to protect his sterling legacy, something that is extremely important to him.

“I already believe I am the best linebacker in the game,” said Lewis several years ago. “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.”

Lewis has a strong appreciation for the history of the game and his place within it. He already knows his bust in Canton is secure but why risk tarnishing it by going to another team, especially when the Ravens want him to return?

Yes, Michael Jordan had a final run with the hapless Washington Wizards, and Brett Favre became a New York Jet, but while history may be forgiving to its legends that finish brilliant careers in other cities, their final chapters are often ignored or completely forgotten out of necessity. Nobody wants to remember Jordan fading away in Washington or Favre throwing interceptions in New York.

That just doesn’t fit Lewis’ brash style.

When legends stay with that same team where they found so much success, they’re given a proper farewell, even if they may not be the player they once were. The city and its fans are able to truly show how appreciated their hero has been and how he will always have a virtual key to the city.

The coming weeks will show just how much these other factors will play into the decisions faced by both Lewis and the Ravens. It figures to ultimately come down to money, as it usually does, but both sides need to take a long hard look at each other before deciding to part ways.

Will Lewis finish his career in Baltimore where the legend was born and continues to thrive, or must we brace ourselves for the possibility of another legend’s final act taking place in another city and needing to be forgotten?

Regardless of the answer, Ray Lewis is the Baltimore Ravens, and the Baltimore Ravens are Ray Lewis. It should ultimately stay that way.

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