Monday, March 2, 2009

Ray Lewis Experiences Cruel World of Free Agency

The feeling of being unwanted is a sobering, bitter pill to swallow regardless of how successful one has been in his profession.

For Ray Lewis, the silence of his phone has been deafening, reflecting how his actual value contrasts the Pro Bowl linebacker’s lofty goal of scoring one more big payday in a certain Hall of Fame career.

Despite all the talk of playing in Dallas or New York and even the rumor that he would rather retire than return to the Baltimore Ravens, Lewis sits at his Florida home with only one standing offer, the rumored three-year, $24 million offer from the Ravens.

Perhaps he did not realize how good he had it in Baltimore until he saw how cruel the reality of free agency could be for an aging veteran with unrealistic demands.

Lewis is a very proud man, so it is no surprise the rejection from the league’s other 31 teams stings deeply. Still a very productive linebacker at 33, Lewis will unquestionably use the perceived snubbing as motivation in preparing for his 14th season.

But how long will it take Lewis to lick his wounds before calling general manager Ozzie Newsome to accept the Ravens’ contract offer?

From a financial standpoint, the Ravens could easily lower their offer to Lewis after seeing how emaciated the market is for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

However, Newsome and the Ravens will not do this, showing more respect for the face of their franchise than he has shown for the organization that drafted him and has treated him well throughout his career.

Since the Ravens lost linebacker Bart Scott and center Jason Brown to lucrative contract offers from the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams respectively, the organization has no choice but to keep its aging leader and prevent an even bigger hole at inside linebacker from opening.

Reducing the offer would not only further sour an already stewing Lewis but would also increase the likelihood of another team jumping into the market for his services.

Owner Steve Bisciotti and coach John Harbaugh insisted the Ravens would value Lewis higher than any other team in the NFL, but Lewis refused to believe he could not earn any more than what Baltimore was offering.

No one can blame the Ravens’ leader for seeking more money, as he has every right to cash in with his final contract, but if Lewis has anyone to blame for his current predicament, it is his representation and, ultimately, himself.

Whoever was advising Lewis about his earning potential in free agency either severely misread the market or was not assertive enough in convincing their client about his actual value.

Or, perhaps that intense pride that has pushed Lewis to be one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game led to his downfall in this free agent experience.

Regardless of the cause, the situation was handled miserably by Lewis and his people, who portrayed the inside linebacker as a mercenary with no loyalty to the organization that clearly wanted to maintain his services with a generous contract offer.

For the teams rumored to be interested in Lewis for his unquestioned leadership ability, this behavior had to be a red flag when also considering his age. Teams may have viewed his disloyalty to the Ravens as a warning sign that Lewis may not be the easiest to appease if a situation is not to his liking.

This is something the Ravens have known about Lewis for years. His leadership can be outstanding but only when things are going his way.

The inside linebacker has been known to mope and even lash out, as he did following the 2005 season, wanting to be traded if the Ravens failed to acquire a big defensive tackle to keep blockers away from him. When the Ravens drafted Haloti Ngata in 2006, Lewis was suddenly happy again.

It is also common to see Lewis duck out of the locker room without talking to the media following a tough loss.

The Ravens have put up with these behaviors for so long, because Lewis is their guy, and they know what he brings to the football field when he is content.

It may take a few more days to swallow his pride, but Lewis will eventually concede and accept the Ravens’ contract offer. He’ll then probably begin to mend some fences and attempt to save face by claiming his heart was truly with the Ravens, and that Baltimore is “his” city.

And though the Ravens’ front office will privately roll their eyes, they will accept it as the proud Lewis simply being himself. After all, they realize how much Lewis has done for the organization, even if he does not want to acknowledge how much they have done for him.

While hurt feelings are apparent with Lewis, the Ravens, and even their fan base, all will be forgiven when Lewis comes dancing out of the tunnel and creates an absolute frenzy at M&T Bank Stadium in September.

Ultimately, Lewis returning to the Ravens was the way it was supposed to be, but it took a humbling rejection from 31 other teams for him to finally see where he rightfully belongs.

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