Even as Ray Lewis' game weakened (a little) and the criticism strengthened (a lot) as the Baltimore Ravens attempted to morph into an elite offensive team led by Joe Flacco, there was never doubt about one thing inside the club's locker room:
If Baltimore again gathers in a pregame tunnel leading out to another AFC championship game, it wants No. 52 there – clad in purple and black – barking one of his over-the-top motivational speeches, setting the tone and believing he'll deliver in the biggest moments.
The Ravens are built to play in February – a Super Bowl-or-bust kind of season at hand – and that road is easier traveled with linebacker Ray Lewis leading the way; even at 37 years old and blockable.
Lewis is gone for the season, his 17th in the NFL. The bad news came on Monday, courtesy of an MRI on torn triceps.
At his age, it could be the end of a legendary and dominating Hall of Fame career, the ferocious middle linebacker of a generation. That decision, which would be as chilling as it is sudden, is still to come.
Thirteen Pro Bowl selections, 10 All-Pro nods, two NFL defensive player of the year awards, a Super Bowl MVP, nearly 1,600 career solo tackles and 41½ career sacks is what the résumé reads. Yet Lewis meant more than that. His legacy will come from his presence, his essence, his leadership and his ability to lift teammates and drop opponents at the same time.
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That's what was taken from these 5-1 Ravens.
And for all the talk about Lewis' slowing speed, or the emergence of Flacco, or the transition to an offensively-minded, capable-of-winning-a-shootout club (evidence: 31-29 victory over Dallas on Sunday) the impact of the man in the middle of that iconic defense can't be understated.
No, he isn't as great as he was. No, he isn't as fast or as strong or as sure a tackler. Yes, he lost weight to regain speed, then probably lost the speed anyway, only now he was weaker. He was clearly beat on a couple of key Felix Jones runs Sunday.
Yet it's not like he was some stiff. He was dealing with the expectations that come from playing in your own former shadow. He still made a team-high 14 tackles against Dallas, eight of them solo before getting hurt – his career perhaps ending on regular season solo tackle No. 1,567.
He has a team high 57 on the season despite playing without running mate Terrell Suggs, the reigning defensive player of the year who's been out all season with injury. It was Suggs' return, expected soon, that could've alleviated a bit of Lewis workload.
Instead the Ravens' defense isn't just in transition, it's without its transformative figure – the one that gave the franchise its identity.
Lewis is a larger-than-life figure, even in a big-ego world of the NFL. The way he carries himself, preaches, dresses and, most important, brings intensity to every task – be it an offseason workout, a late-game stand or a midweek meeting – rubs off on all.
His younger teammates – who grew up watching him, even listening to the speeches on his regular "mic'd up" TV sessions – were often in awe. He was the relentlessly positive force that preached the team, the team, the team.
When a botched field goal cost the Ravens a shot at the Super Bowl last season, and gave them a frustrating fourth consecutive playoff with at least one victory but no conference title, he defended the kicker. Over the years when the Ravens routinely fielded one of the NFL's best defenses – top three in fewest points allowed in each of the past four seasons – only to be failed by a sputtering offense, he mostly held his tongue.
Even now, with an offense capable of spinning a scoreboard, he wouldn't even retroactively attack the unit. Is this the offense you've been waiting for all these years, Lewis was asked after a Week 1 blowout of the rival Cincinnati Bengals?
"I've been here a long time …" he said, before breaking into a smile. "You can finish that off for me."
These weren't just the Baltimore Ravens that young players were joining. These were Ray Lewis' Baltimore Ravens. Everything, on both sides of the ball, appeared to run through him.
And so when the offense finally turned the corner and showed an ability to reach elite status, the season became a bit of a rallying cry for Ray (and veteran safety Ed Reed).
"[I want to] give Ray another [Super Bowl]," cornerback Lardarius Webb said earlier this season. "It's not even about me."
And, yes, that's the same Lardarius Webb, the team's best cover corner, who also was lost for the season Sunday with a torn ACL in his left knee. And nose guard Haloti Ngata was banged up Sunday. And Suggs is still out.
So increasingly the key to this Super Bowl contender is on offense. Suggs will return. Ngata will heal up. Reed will still ball hawk.
But gone is the heart and soul, the big talking, bigger hitting legend; the prototype middle linebacker that didn't just deliver sacks and wins but defined the franchise's soul for all these years.
Ray Lewis is gone for the year, gone maybe forever, and whether it's in the middle of a key possession or those emotional moments in a pre-game, championship game tunnel, there isn't any way to replace everything he brought to the Ravens, slow, slowing or not.
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