Walking the halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on a recent visit, I almost flinched at the realistic depictions of the mauling middle linebackers of yesteryear. Yikes, were they coming after me?
Sam Huff. Dick Butkus. Ray Nitschke. Mike Singletary. Together, they've forged one of the most iconic prototypes the sport has ever generated – the growling mauler who crushes ball carriers, nearly taking off heads in the process.
Their historic continuum springs from football's bedrock, and it's no small thing that the Ravens will become part of that continuum when Ray Lewis slips on a gold jacket and is enshrined in the Hall, presumably as soon as he becomes eligible next year.
Lewis, who helped the Ravens win two Super Bowls during his 17-year career, is cut straight from the mold those others cast. He was a menacing, dominating, big-shouldered fury with a legendary greatest hits collection. I'm sure he made a few grown men cry.
A stroll through the Hall's corridors drives home the point that his legacy will be widespread and enduring. Huff, now 82, surely never imagined that fans would still be admiring his career almost a half-century after it ended. But enshrinement brings immortality.
A half-century from now, fans in Canton, Ohio will smile as they recall Lewis leveling ball carriers from sideline to sideline.
But they also might reflect on Lewis as the last of his breed. That notion struck me as I walked away from the hall. Was Lewis, in fact, pro football's last great mauling linebacker?
It's quite possible.
Pro football as changed dramatically in the 21 years since the Ravens drafted Lewis. The evolution to more of a pass-first game was already underway then, and it continues today. If anything, it's accelerating. The New England Patriots attempted passes on 63 of their 93 offensive snaps in their Super Bowl win in February.
Inevitably, the increasingly pass-happy nature of NFL offenses has changed the nature of the jobs on the other side of the line. No longer can the middle or inside linebacker mostly hover over center, breathing fire, and focus on crushing ball carriers. He also needs to be nimble enough to drop into the secondary and cover darting receivers. In fact, against some teams, that's about all he needs to do.
It's a different job, for sure, and it's producing a different kind of linebacker, more agile than menacing, more athletic than brutal.
The Ravens' C.J. Mosley is among the best of the new breed, already a two-time Pro Bowl selection after three pro seasons. But what is his nickname among teammates? They don't call him "Bruiser," or "Lights Out." They call him "Half Man, Half Amazing," a reference to Spiderman, the agile superhero.
That's your linebacker of the present and future.
Lewis, who retired after the 2012 season, certainly had to deal with the changing nature of his position in his final years. He lost weight, sculpted his body differently, tried to become more fluid. It meant the end of his smash-mouth glory days, which he surely didn't relish. But he was a pragmatist and earned a second Super Bowl ring for his trouble.
He retired at the right time, though. The Generation Next linebackers were already taking over.
Don't misunderstand, they're also strong and tough and deliver some big hits. But football today is as much about speed and matchups as it is about sheer toughness and intimidation. If a mauler out of the Lewis mold can't keep up with fleet receivers running crossing routes, he'll find himself on the bench.
If I state that there'll never be another Ray Lewis, most Ravens fans will rise up and shout "Amen" because they watched him play, and there's no replacing what he brought to the team.
But the statement also has a broader context. There'll never be another Ray Lewis because the game has changed and his position has changed. Just ask those growling ghosts prowling the corridors of the Hall of Fame.