As soon as it became known Monday that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis would miss the rest of the 2012 season because of a triceps tear, speculation arose that he might have played his final snap.
It's a dramatic thought and makes for compelling conversation. But I will believe it when I see it.
We haven't heard from Lewis on the subject and might not for awhile, but at this point, before we know, if you forced me to wager a nickel on whether he comes back or walks away, I would bet on seeing him in uniform next season.
Oh, sure, it's easy to drum up a rationale for why he might want to call it quits. He will be 38 in 2013, which is way up there for a linebacker. Next season would be his 18th , a borderline crazy number. He has checked off every conceivable career accomplishment, hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, earned the highest individual accolades, cemented a place in the Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.
Plus, while he was still the Ravens' leading tackler through six games, he was struggling to maintain the punishing style he has brandished for so long. He was getting run over at times, beaten at the point of attack. Surely he didn't like experiencing that, and at his age, it's hard to imagine him turning that around and becoming dominant again next year, especially coming off a major injury.
So after all of that, why do I like the odds of him returning rather than walking away?
For starters, I don't think he wants his bust in Canton to read, "On his final football play, he tore a triceps muscle tackling a third-string running back for the Dallas Cowboys and couldn't play anymore." That's no way for such a fiercely competitive athlete to go out. He wants to tie the bow his way.
Granted, few players, almost none, get to experience the Hollywood-style myth Lewis longs for, winning a title and riding off into the sunset. If he keeps coming back strictly for that, he might still be playing when he needs to ask the league for special dispensation to use a walker.
But while getting that second Super Bowl ring certainly has driven Lewis in recent years, it's not the sole reason he has kept playing. It's not even the biggest reason, if you ask me. He just plain and simple loves football, perhaps as much as anyone who ever suited up.
He loves everything about the game – the competition, the clash of minds, the personal challenge, the camaraderie … with both teammates and opponents. He loves the chance to lead, the opportunity to impact others, the winning and even the losing in his own way, understanding that life is seldom perfect.
He loves the game's rituals, walking through the locker room on a Thursday morning, the buildup through the week, the chance to continue to play a rugged craft. Shoot, Ray Lewis loves practice, man.
Yes, he also likes the attention, no doubt about it. And of course, he is due to make $5.4 million in 2013. Whatever else he might do certainly wouldn't reward him as handsomely.
Sure, there's always a chance that, despite all that, he will decide he just can't hack it anymore and say he is done. But can you imagine Lewis admitting to himself that he "just can't hack it anymore?" I know I can't see it.
The reality is he can still play quite capably, better than a fair share of other linebackers around the league. He was no longer a dominator in 2012, but he was still reading plays and making plenty of tackles, still bringing people down. It's a simplistic mistake to suggest he alone was the reason the Ravens' run defense was steamrolled in the past two games. A combination of factors led to that, including the inability of those in front of him to hold their ground.
Lewis is the players' player, and he loves playing football so much that – my guess here – if he believes he can still contribute to the Ravens defense, and he can, he will rehab his injury and be back in 2013.