I'll readily admit to having been something of a skeptic about the importance of Ray Lewis' leadership, especially in the latter stages of his (very soon to be) Hall of Fame career.
Although Lewis obviously possessed a rare capacity to inspire others, there were times when it all seemed a bit staged to me, more of a made-for-TV show that, if anything, succeeded in drawing attention to Ray.
Did he really motivate his teammates? If you looked closely, there were more impressionable young guys than key veterans around him as he shouted in pre-game huddles. And of course, there was that memorable exchange between Joe Flacco and David Letterman after Super Bowl 47.
"Tell me about this guy, Ray Lewis. What's his deal?" 'Letterman asked.
"Well, half the time, I don't know, but …" Flacco responded.
Lewis' bona fides as a player were never in question. It's hard to recall any recent Hall of Fame candidate who was more of a lock to gain induction as soon as he became eligible. One of the greatest linebackers ever, Lewis surely will hear his name called Saturday evening.
But was he really the influential leader his legend purports?
Five years after his famous "last ride" ended in triumph, I believe it's now clear the answer is yes. My skepticism was misplaced. Whatever it was that Lewis brought to the table – part hokey theater, yes, but also an attempt to inspire and motivate his teammates – it delivered as intended.
"He made people around him better, which is the greatest compliment you can give anyone in football," Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti said Friday.
The Ravens have never replaced it, and the fact that they miss it is underscored by their 40-40 record since Lewis' retirement.
I'm not saying the Ravens lack leadership. That notion, popular in some quarters as an explanation for the team's recent shortfalls, is just a bunch of blah-blah in my opinion.
Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs provide plenty of able leadership for the defense. Marshal Yanda leads by example as effectively as any player in the NFL. Flacco isn't a rah-rah guy, but he is steadfastly cool in tense situations and never criticizes a teammate – a tone-setting combo any coach would embrace.
But Lewis deserves his own caliber. He not only led the way off the field with his unmatched film study habits, but he also talked a great game and backed it up. When the Ravens were behind, he would walk up and down the sideline encouraging players to dig deeper. Were the cameras on him? Yes. Did he know that? Yes. But through sheer force of personality, he convinced the players to keep believing.
Two weeks ago, I saw New England quarterback Tom Brady doing exactly the same thing. The Patriots trailed the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second half of the AFC championship game. The situation looked bleak. But there was Brady working the sideline with a cape draped over his shoulders, looking teammates in the eye and preaching belief.
It worked. The Patriots came back to win. When the most successful quarterback in history tells you to keep believing. I guess you do.
The Ravens had that kind of intangible going for them for years. And now that Lewis is gone, they don't.
I don't think you can fault them for not replacing it. "You can't replace a Hall of Famer. You can try," Bisciotti said Friday.
In the end, you just have to devise an entirely new calculus for winning, one that doesn't include the legendary player's intangibles – not an easy task, as the Ravens discover more and more every year.
Yes, Lewis was so over-the-top near the end of his career that Saturday Night Live mocked him for it. As he heads to Canton, I'm sure there'll be jokes about the emotional speech he's bound to give.
But I've learned my lesson, as have the Ravens. Lewis may have put on a dramatic show, but oh, it worked.