For years, Ray Lewis has been more than just the Ravens' leader – he has been their public face, the player who defined the franchise for the rest of the football world.
That hasn't changed in 2009 even though Lewis, 34, is nearing the end of his first ballot-Hall of Fame career; on the NBC broadcast of last Sunday night's game against the Steelers, Lewis was constantly on camera, discussed by the announcers and interviewed after the Ravens won in overtime. It was "all Ray all the time."
Watching that, and knowing it would unfold again Monday night when the Ravens play the Packers in Green Bay, I started thinking about what those broadcasts would be like when Lewis isn't around – an eventuality that is fast approaching (after next season, I predict) and that will be, make no mistake, a truly seismic moment for the Ravens, far bigger than anyone suspects.
When Lewis, who joined the Ravens before they ever played a game, finally departs, who will replace him as their public face, the guy who defines pro football in Baltimore circa 2010? Ray Rice, the superb young running back whom Lewis is mentoring, is a possibility. But my money is on Joe Flacco. Big, commanding quarterbacks tend to rise to prominence.
Yes, Flacco needs to develop into an elite player if he's going to be the face of the Ravens, and he isn't there yet, but I think he's on his way despite having struggled at times this season. Ups and downs are normal for young quarterbacks, especially those who started as rookies. And since mid-October, he has been dealing with an ankle injury that limits his mobility and seemingly has affected his throwing mechanics.
As it is, he still has the NFL's 12th highest quarterback rating and almost 2,800 passing yards through 11 games this season. Give him, say, two more years of experience and a few newer (and faster) targets, and with his big arm and innate confidence, he should rank with some of the game's best.
When I rub my purple crystal ball and contemplate the future, I see national television crews coming to town and going to him first, like they go to Lewis now, to gauge the Ravens' state of mind.
That "transfer of power" isn't a big deal, you say? Think again. For the first time, the public face of the defensive-minded Ravens would be, gulp, an offensive player. Could that signal the end of one era and the start of another? Quite possibly. It's not etched on a tablet somewhere that the Ravens must be known for their defense.
And Flacco is polite and deferential, almost bland, unlike the fiery Lewis, whose pregame dances have sent the Ravens' home crowd into a delirium for a decade. The Ravens might become more businesslike with their young quarterback setting the tone.
But they would be in good hands. Although Flacco, 24, is just starting to develop as a leader, all signs point to him being the kind of leader any team would want. When Mark Clayton dropped a key reception in New England earlier this season, costing the Ravens a shot at a win, Flacco said he had made a bad throw. It wasn't true but he was just supporting a crestfallen teammate. And when he threw a critical late interception against the Colts that led to a recent defeat, he said, "just a dumb play by me." Little moments like those speak volumes. Flacco is loyal, accountable and humble even though he has great faith in his ability. His teammates love him.
The best thing about Lewis – as a leader, a public face – is his unabashed love for the game, which remains as strong as ever. Pro football is a tough business that can rob players of their sense of romance, but Lewis, even now, exudes a childlike passion that is contagious, especially among younger players. His eyes flared earlier this week when asked about playing at cold, snowy Lambeau Field. "It don't get no better," he said.
If you don't think the Ravens will miss that feisty enthusiasm, you're mistaken. They'll miss Lewis, and what he stands for, enormously, and they'll find themselves needing to adjust in a variety of ways. They won't necessarily be the tough, shove-you-down Ravens anymore.
But with Flacco maturing quickly, they'll be ready for life after Ray – much more ready than they were just a couple of years ago.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.