After the Ravens' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in last weekend's AFC Championship, many pundits speculated if it was Ray Lewis!(/team/roster/ray-lewis/1c6d5ed3-fe49-4a89-a6b5-9e358e906ae7/ "Ray Lewis")' final game in purple and black.
Team owner **Steve Bisciotti** is "hopeful" that it wasn't.
In an annual season wrap-up news conference, Bisciotti explained that the Ravens likely won't use the franchise tag, instead opting to lock the veteran linebacker to a multi-year contract before he officially hits free agency in March.
"I've been hopeful forever that we're going to work a deal," Bisciotti said. "I said last year to you, in our one year interview – I don't think that other people are going to value Ray Lewis higher than we do. We know what he brings to the table, and he's showing that at 33 he's capable of playing like a 28-year-old.
"So, I've got my wife on a budget already to try and save some money so we can sign him," he added with a laugh.
Regardless of what budget constraints Renée Bisciotti may be under, Lewis' performance in 2008 certainly backs up Steve Bisciotti's claims.
Lewis' 13th year in the league was another dominant chapter in what will surely be a Hall of Fame career.
He led the team with 160 tackles, topping the century mark for the 11th time. Lewis also tallied three interceptions, 3.5 sacks, 12 passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.
In nine games this season, including the AFC Divisional Playoff matchup with the Tennessee Titans, Lewis hit double digits for stops en route to his 10th Pro Bowl.
As the Ravens marched to a 13-6 record and the legend of No. 52 continued to grow, the Baltimore-bred Bisciotti admitted that even he became more and more of a fan.
"I got involved [as part owner] in 2000, but I was a fan of Ray Lewis before I bought the team," Bisciotti said. "There are very few people that I know in sports that transcend their statistics. We had the luxury of watching Cal Ripken simultaneously do the same thing to the Orioles. I think they bring a sense of continuity, a sense of leadership that we're all looking for. It's why we're all sports fans – to look up to people.
"I think Ray has given Baltimore that. There are some of the very greats of the game that have had to move on, and we're going to do our best to prevent that."
But being both a close friend and a rabid fan of Lewis' does not mean that the owner will get deeply involved with negotiations.
Instead, Bisciotti defers personnel and contract matters to general manager **Ozzie Newsome**.
"I hope I'm just having a dinner with Ray to celebrate a new contract," Bisciotti explained. "But, my friendship can't influence things like that or Ozzie wouldn't want me in this building. Nobody loves and respects Ray more than Ozzie. In Ozzie we trust, as they say."
But the Ravens' free agency to-do list definitely does not stop there. There are many key members of the 2008 locker room that could be absent next year.
In addition to Lewis, starting linebackers Terrell Suggs!(/team/roster/terrell-suggs/ad26be43-1380-45f1-b047-a91e850d9761/ "Terrell Suggs") and **Bart Scott** have reached the end of their contracts.
And, center **Jason Brown**, a 2005 Baltimore draft pick, safety **Jim Leonhard**, an unheralded offseason signee that stepped up to the first team, and stalwart kicker **Matt Stover** will all enter the open market.
"We have a number of guys back, and we'll try to keep as many of them as we can," Ravens head coach **John Harbaugh** said. "We'll try to keep as many of them as we possibly can. That will be our goal. We'll see what we can get done."
To ease the salary cap burden of retaining all six free-agent starters, could there be a hometown discount when it comes to Lewis' contract with the team that drafted him in 1996 and followed him to a Super Bowl XXXV victory?
"That's what I hope my relationship with Ray is," said Bisciotti "I hope I get a discount so I can find another Jim Leonhard with the money we save. If he wants to go out there and maximize his money, and somebody is desperate for that kind of leadership, then there may be a big gap, and I'm not going to say to Oz, 'Go do it under any circumstance.' That wouldn't be fair to Ozzie.
"He's got a plan, and it's all pieces of the puzzle. I could make one demand, and it would domino across the entire roster."
After advancing to within one victory from another Super Bowl appearance, such an effect is not what Bisciotti – or anyone within the organization – would want.