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Ray Lewis: The Greatest Inside Linebacker of All Time.
Is 52 the best ever?
Every year, hundreds of amateur NFL players hope to be taken in the first round of the draft. some get invited to new york, where they get dressed up and analyzed by draftniks and experts. Some sit at home, sweaty hands gripping cell phones, eyes glued to the television. Some of these players do make the first 32. Of those 32, a few start. Of those few starters, a few are good right away. And of those few very good rookie starters are great.
In 1996, many people questioned when a brand new franchise in Baltimore used thei 26th pick on an undersized linebacker from the University of Miami. Thanks to surprising speed and the incredible ability to tackle in the open field, he was named the starter in week one.
Ray Lewis was named NFL defensive player of the week after his first NFL game.
17 seasons, 13 pro bowls, 7 first team all-pros, 3 second team all-pros, 2 time NFL linebacker of the year, 3 time AFC defensive player of the year, 2 NFL defensive player of year awards, a Super Bowl trophy, and a Super Bowl MVP later, I think it is safe to say that Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome made the right choice.
In a world where first ballot hall of fame consideration is reserved for Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and other offensive juggernauts, Ray Lewis stands out as the best defensive option.
Over the last sixteen years, no defensive player has been more feared, or more respected than Ravens linebacker, Ray Lewis. If I were to say "Ray Lewis is the best inside linebacker of the last twenty years", I bet people would begrudgingly shrug and agree.
But I'm not satisfied with that. I'm not satisfied with 20 or even 30 years.
So today, I'm gonna argue my points, and express my opinion and try to convince you to believe what I believe.
That "Sugah Ray Lewis" is the best inside linebacker of all time.
As far as records go, Ray Ray is no stranger. He currently holds the records for most games started at inside linebacker (227), most All-Pros at inside linebacker (10), most Pro Bowls (13), most seasons started at Inside linebacker (17), was the fastest to record both 20 interceptions/sacks and 30 interceptions/sacks (113 and 204), is the only player in NFL history to have 40 sacks and 30 interceptions (41 and 31), as well as holding the NFL record for tackles in a career (2,061). Despite playing 16 years, he only failed to lead his team in tackles twice, during the 2002 and 2005 seasons, when he was hurt. Those stats are staggering when you consider that at 37, a decade older than the best ILB in the league today, Patrick Willis, Lewis is still probably amongst the most feared players in the NFL. If his personal performance isn't enough, how about how he has affected his team?
When you think of the Ravens, what do you think?
Defense. Hard nosed, brutal, defense.
Since Ray Lewis was drafted in 1996, the Ravens defense has been ranked in the top ten twelve times. Their worst season in that span? Was in 2002, where the Ravens dropped from second in the league to twenty-second. That is a twenty team drop because of one injured player. That can be compared to the Colts collapse without Manning last season. The 2000 Ravens defense is considered one of the greatest of all time. They only allowed 165 points, a record previously held by the hallowed 85 Bears defense, and Lewis was awarded both Defensive Player of the year and Super Bowl MVP. In his career, his teams have given up an average of 3.42 yards per carry to running backs, especially during a 51 game streak (Between 1998 and 2001) where the Ravens defense did not give up a 100 yard rusher in a game.
The biggest argument against my theory is that the classics were better. That Ray doesn't stack up against the ferocity of players like Jack Lambert, Mike Singletary, and Dick Butkus. Ray Lewis can't be in their league because of how aggressively they played football. We've all heard the horror stories about some players were known to poke ball carriers in the eyes or knock each others teeth out. They played a style of football we now consider dirty, and because Ray Lewis plays in a softer, modern era, he can not be compared to them. Despite the fact that Ray Lewis has a long reel of hard hit highlights, and even despite those who call him dirty (I'm looking at you, Pats fans and American Football Media). But if those guys were tougher, how come they quit? If those legends of the gridiron were so tough, so bulletproof, how come Ray played longer against better athletes? Ray hit harder, faster, and yes, even stronger against superior competition for 17 seasons. Do you think Lambert could have chased down a Darren McFadden? Can you imagine Singletary covering a Tony Gonzales? And imagine Butkus trying to chase down Michael Vick. It wouldn't happen. Ray Lewis redefined the inside linebacker position. Everybody who ever played with Ray, whispers his name like a fallen idol, like a childhood comic strip hero. Talkative all of fame players such as Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, and Shannon Sharpe all hush in Lewis' presence. And it isn't just players. Several men have gone from assistant to head coach because they coached Ray Lewis and his defense. Men like Marvin Lewis, Mike Smith, Rex Ryan, and Chuck Pagano all have Head Coaching jobs because they coached Ray Lewis.
Anyone who has ever heard a Ray Lewis speech remembers it clearly. His trademark enthusiasm, his ability to connect with anyone on a personal level, even in the raw testosterone of a pre-game huddle or away locker room. Sitting on my couch, rooting against the Ravens, even I have been inspired by the power, by the energy that seems to run through his veins. I, just a scrawny fan, hundreds of miles away, feel the testosterone pound through my body after just a few, hushed words from number 52.
If you don't believe me, listen to this speech, a doozy after Cundiff lost the 2011 AFC Championship. (Skip to 0:28 to get to the speech)
Ray Lewis suffered a tricep tear in 31-29 win over the Cowboys two weeks ago and is out for what many have argued to be his last season. And has left many of us wondering if we will ever see him dancing out of the tunnel again? Will he ever crush another running back trying to barrel down the middle again? Is this the end? I certainly hope not... But if it is, he certainly left a mark as the best inside linebacker in the game.
18 years ago, if you asked what athlete was most revered in Baltmore. It would have been easy. Everyone would say "Cal, hun" Or "shug, it's clearly Johnny U". Nowadays, you might hear "Oh Michael Phelps" or even the occasional "Gotta be Melo" but everyone knows.
You can't say Ravens without Ray.