OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) -Ray Lewis has played for three head coaches, three different defensive coordinators and has been surrounded by an ever-changing cast of supporting players.
One thing, however, has remained constant throughout his brilliant 13-year career: Lewis taking charge in the middle of a stout Baltimore Ravens defense.
Lewis is the leading tackler on the second-ranked defense in the NFL, and his contribution goes well beyond mere statistics. He is the unquestioned leader on the field and in the locker room, whether it be barking orders on a third-down play, organizing film-study sessions or answering questions from an inquisitive rookie.
He does more than any player I've been around,'' Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said Wednesday.He just loves the game. I know he's a talented guy that can do a lot of things in life, but I can't see him ever not doing football. He puts everything he's got into it. It's amazing to watch.''
Lewis is 33, yet he still plays middle linebacker like the 21-year-old rookie drafted out of Miami in 1996. It's hard to imagine, but this version of Ray Lewis might be even better, because the experience he's gained outweighs any physical shortcomings that come with 13 years of exchanging blows at one of the most demanding positions on the field.
When Lewis came into the league, he depended primarily on his instincts to make plays. Now, he supplements his talent with rigorous offseason preparation and hours of film study.
I think I've grown in so many areas. I don't think I can explain them all,'' Lewis said.I think every year you gain a level of wisdom. That's the game of football.''
Lewis has led the Ravens in tackling in six of seven games this season. He also has a sack, has knocked away five passes and forced a fumble. That only begins to explain his importance to a young defense that listens to Lewis as readily as Ryan or head coach John Harbaugh.
He's flying around like he did 10 years ago, when I first got here,'' Ryan said.He enjoys playing with the guys, leading the guys. Heck, leading me and everybody else. He's a special guy.''
During the early years of his career, Lewis relied upon veterans such as Rod Woodson and Shannon Sharpe for guidance. Now he's the one doling out advice, doing his part in the NFL version of the circle of life.
Me being in that position, I'm more of a tutor to a lot of the younger guys, trying to teach them about the game,'' he said.My offseason is always preparing for when the games come. That's the fun part. Then you just raise the young guys to always play on a high level. The game just continues to get better and better as you get older.''
And so, incidentally, does Lewis.
``I can't ever see him getting old,'' Ryan said.
As an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, Harbaugh developed a lofty opinion of Lewis by viewing film and watching him play on an occasional Sunday. Now that he sees Lewis on a daily basis, he's even more amazed.
Here's a world-class athlete, a Hall of Fame type of athlete, you kind of wonder what makes a guy like that tick. The thing I've been so impressed with is his work ethic,'' Harbaugh said.I mean, this guy does it all. He does it in the physical side in the offseason, he practices hard, he studies tape. Everything you ever heard about Ray Lewis is true.''
Not exactly. Ravens rookie defensive back Haruki Nakamura formed his own opinion of Lewis before arriving at camp, then quickly found out that he was dead wrong.
When you come in here as a rookie, especially as a defensive player, you know Ray Lewis is a big, tough, mean football player,'' Nakamura said.Then you see him in person, and he's one of the classiest guys you'll ever meet and one of the best teammates you'll ever have.''
The way Lewis is playing this season, he's got an excellent chance of being selected to play in the Pro Bowl for the 10th time. By the time he quits, that number could easily exceed a dozen. How much longer can he go?
Easily another three or four more years,'' he said,but it's going to take care of itself however it comes out. ... Life is freaking incredible, and loving football is what I do.''
Given that he enjoys teaching and sharing life lessons with younger people, Lewis might make a good coach after he finally decides to retire. Then again, those traits could serve him well in a different avenue of life.
Asked about plans after football, Lewis replied, ``I'll be coaching my kids.''