HAVE WE SEEN THE BEST OF RAY LEWIS?
Along with saving the victory at the Chargers last Sunday, Ray Lewis, now in his 14th season of battering opponents, showed there's still a lot of juice left in the container.
Not that anyone on the Ravens thought otherwise. That's why we gave him the new contract. That's why he's the leader of our team. Whether it's an offseason workout in the weight room, a morning practice at training camp, a Saturday night meeting when he speaks to his teammates, or a game in San Diego, Ray takes charge because he can. He can because, as Coach John Harbaugh has said, Ray challenges himself to higher levels more than anyone we've ever seen. No one outworks him. No one brings such passion to his work. No one cares more about making his team better.
I've said this before: Ray Lewis is the greatest defensive player in NFL history. I don't base that statement just on my watching every play he has ever played in this league. I've talked to people who know and love the game. Experts who know the history of the league.
Mike Nolan, who was the head coach of the 49ers and is now the defensive coordinator for the 2-0 Broncos, coached Ray as our defensive coordinator. He was Lawrence Taylor's coach as defensive coordinator of the Giants. Those Giants faced the Eagles, who lined up the great Reggie White. Nolan, of course, grew up in the NFL since his father was an NFL head coach for both the 49ers and Saints.
Nolan believes Ray is the best defender ever. But, I've also had the conversation with Marvin Lewis, Ozzie Newsome, Jack Del Rio, Bill Cowher, Rex Ryan and Brian Billick. All agreed that calling anyone the "greatest ever" is hard and subject to debate. But, all agreed Ray has to be in the discussion.
One of the things Nolan pointed out was that players like Taylor and White, who deserved to be considered in this debate, played one side of the field. Ray plays the middle. "You could run plays away from the great outside linebackers and defensive ends, you can't do that with Ray. He plays the middle of the field and runs sideline-to-sideline making all the plays. He can run, he's smart, and I've never seen any player better prepared for every opponent," Nolan told me a few years ago.
Jack Lambert played the middle of the field, and he was amazing. He deserves consideration. He could run like Ray, but as Cowher pointed out once, Lambert weighed 215 pounds. Lewis can run and has played most of his career at 250 pounds. None of the Hall of Fame middle linebackers from the 1950s and 1960s, like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, could run like Ray.
It's an interesting debate and a fun conversation.
I did get the chance to ask Ray this week about some of his most memorable plays. He, of course, said that his tackle on Darren Sproles last Sunday was "one of the greatest plays of my career."
With help from Bob Eller, our vice president of operations, I listed some plays and ran them by Ray. Here's what he said:
Running down RB Eric Metcalf, one of the fastest players in the league, at San Diego in 1997:
Lewis: "I didn't think I would get there, because I didn't have a good angle. I grabbed the back of his pads and snapped him down inside the 5. That would be a penalty today with the horse collar. I remember that Antonio Langham then intercepted them, and they didn't score on that series. But, we lost that game."
The Steve McNair interception off Eddie George in the 2000 Divisional Playoff:
Lewis: "Wow, that was something. The play meant so much because it got us to the Super Bowl. That's why I think so many people remember that play."
(When I asked Ray about the play in Tennessee earlier that season when he knocked Eddie George out of the game, he didn't want to talk about it. "I have too much respect for Eddie as a player and a man to talk about that play.")
Tackling the Giants' Tiki Barber early in Super Bowl XXXV:
Lewis: "I had to chase him all across the field. He was looking to turn the corner, and I caught him before he did. That play was huge because of the stage it was on. They were known for running, so we wanted to let them know early that no team ran on us. It was great for our mindset and put doubts in theirs."
The 66-yard interception for a touchdown against Kurt Warner and the Rams in the 1999 opener:
"That was Brian's (Billick) first game as our head coach. We didn't know who Kurt Warner was. Trent Green got hurt in the preseason. We were more concerned about Marshall Faulk. I remember checking Faulk and then seeing a crossing route, and I jumped it and took it to the house."
The block on Chris McAlister's 107-yard field goal attempt touchdown return against Denver in 2002:
"Again, it was a big stage with a Monday night. We were the youngest team, and we had lost our first two games. The play was set up perfectly. The guy didn't see me. It's that old saying, 'keep your head on a swivel.' He didn't. It was a classic football play. Caught him clean. I was glad he got right back up, because I hit him pretty good."
The tackle of Darren Sproles last Sunday:
"I was just so happy. I had a read that said they were going to run that play. I had seen it four times earlier in the game and didn't bust it. We needed a play. The game was on the line. It might be the happiest I've ever been after a play. It said 'Game over. Let's go home.'"
If you're one of those fans who records Ravens games to watch them again, go back and watch Willis McGahee's 5-yard touchdown run in the 1st quarter of last Sunday's game at San Diego. When you hear people talk about how good our offensive line is or could be, this play is a true indication. The line basically "fork-lifts" the Chargers' D-line, making it easy for Willis to score. It's an amazing show of strength, teamwork and expertise.
And, we'll need more of that to beat the Browns on Sunday. I loved what Coach Harbaugh said to the team in the locker room after the victory last Sunday: "Two down and one to go." If that's not a focus on the now, I don't know what is. We'll be ready. We'll get the best from a Browns' team desperate for a win. Let's get off on the right foot in the AFC North.
Talk to you next week.
Kevin Byrne is in his 31st NFL season and is the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. He has worked in the NFL since 1977, when he was the then-youngest public relations director in the league (for the then-St. Louis Cardinals), except for the two years he was the Director of Public Affairs for TWA (Trans World Airlines). He has been with the Ravens since they began, and before that was a vice president with the Cleveland Browns. He has won a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens and an NCAA basketball championship with Al McGuire's Marquette team in '77. He was on the losing end of historic games known for the "Drive" and the "Fumble." He has worked closely and is friends with some of the best in the game: Ozzie Newsome, Brian Billick, Ray Lewis, Bill Cowher, Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Marty Schottenheimer and Shannon Sharpe to name a few.