Hall of Fame conversations inevitably soar into hyperbole, the greatest this, the most amazing that, and that is certainly the case with Ray Lewis.
Is he the greatest NFL linebacker ever? It’s a subjective question, but he certainly belongs in the debate.
Is he the greatest leader ever? Even his detractors might grant him that, but again, it’s not a measurable accolade.
But with Lewis now just hours away from his Hall of Fame induction tonight in Canton, Ohio (possibly concluding with him giving, yes, the most emotional speech ever), I find myself reflecting on a simple question with a clear answer that, honestly, might represent Lewis’ greatest achievement.
Is he the most important player in Ravens history? Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that today, but here’s the thing, he might still rank as the franchise’s most important player decades from now.
Art Modell made the Ravens WHO they are by moving his team from Cleveland to Baltimore more than two decades ago, but Lewis made the Ravens WHAT they are – a franchise with a rugged, hard-knocking identity as distinct as any in the NFL.
I say that with great respect for the coaches and other players who also helped make the franchise what it is, including Jonathan Ogden, who is already in the Hall of Fame; Ed Reed, who will probably join Ogden and Lewis next year; and Terrell Suggs or any other greats who eventually slip on a gold jacket.
It took a village, as they say. And football is a team game. But I’m sure even Ogden, Reed and Suggs would concede that Lewis owns by far the highest pedestal when it comes to having impacted the franchise.
No matter who else from the Ravens eventually goes into the Hall of Fame, they won’t be as fundamentally essential to the franchise as Lewis. His playing style was that vivid, his persona that singular. Years after his last tackle, Lewis is still the face of the Ravens. They’re indelibly cast in his image and may always be.
Here’s a brief history lesson. When Modell moved the team here, it didn’t have a nickname, colors, a head coach or any playoff hopes. In the Ravens’ first years, Vinny Testaverde passed for a gazillion yards but their defense gave up a gazillion more.
Then in 2000 everything changed, suddenly and permanently.
Coalescing around Lewis, already an All-Pro, the defense emerged as a punishing unit that dominated opponents, actually beat them up, during an improbable late-season surge that evolved into a playoff run. It was a unit with many stars, but Lewis was the one who made it work, delivering hits and wreaking havoc as he roamed the field from sideline to sideline.
After the Ravens obliterated the New York Giants in Super Bowl 35, they made the cover of Sports Illustrated – the ultimate honor in those days – under the headline, “Baltimore Bullies.” A sub-headline read, “The Ravens’ defense beats up the Giants in the Super Bowl.”
The franchise’s persona was born, with Lewis as its embodiment. The Baltimore Ravens? They were the NFL’s tough guys, all about defense. It became their enduring signature with Lewis in his prime, continuing to dominate year after year.
It was such an enduring signature, in fact, that it persisted even when the facts argued to the contrary. When the Ravens won another Super Bowl in 2012, Joe Flacco and the offense carried them more than the defense. No matter. A last-minute goal-line stand by Lewis and the defense saved the Super Bowl victory, and the idea of the Ravens as a team dependent on defense carried on.
The Hall of Fame is full of legends associated with certain teams, Bart Starr with the Green Bay Packers, Roger Staubach with the Dallas Cowboys, etc., but I don’t think any player is more intimately associated with his team than Lewis is with the Ravens.
Baltimore Bullies. Ray Lewis and his crew. Let me know when the rest of the football world sees the Ravens as anything other than that. I think it’s going to be a long wait.