Ray Lewis is the greatest inside linebacker of all-time. I know that it is not fashionable to say that about a current player. We always wax poetic about past heroes. Considering how he played at his peak, how long he played at a high level, and how many hits he has delivered and taken, and how complex offenses have become, I would take him against anyone.
With news of his triceps tear, there is talk that he won’t want to go out like that. He can go out how he wants–maybe he wants to one back for a last hurrah at age 38–but he was showing signs that it might have been time soon even if the triceps hadn’t given out. The Chiefs had lined up and gone right at the Ravens defense with the run, not even making pretense that they wanted to pass. This week, the Cowboys pounded the Ravens, first with DeMarco Murray, and then once he went out, the potent combination of Felix Jones and Philip Tanner.
That all can be forgiven, though. Lewis is after all 37 years of age. Two things will tell you when it’s time to retire: your opponents, and your own body. Lewis may have just had one tell him it’s time before the other.
Do you know how many Hall of Fame linebackers were still doing it past this age? Zero. Lambert was done at age 32. Dick Butkus had to retire before his 32nd birthday. Only a handful of inside linebackers, Hall of Famer or not, were still playing at age 37. Sam Mills is the only one to be a starter at age 38. That’s the company Lewis would join if he returned next season.
So it may be too early to do a career recap, but an improbable comeback next year really doesn’t change this. Here are the Hall of Famers, along with Lewis, and how many seasons they played, how many all pro first team selections, and their age in the last season.
Lewis has played longer than any of them already. In terms of all-pro seasons, he is tied with Mike Singletary, and one behind two old-timers, Bill George and Joe Schmidt.
I think you could put together a short list, from those Hall of Famers, of the following candidates for best inside or middle linebacker in pro football history: Lewis, Singletary, Lambert, Butkus, Schmidt, George and Bednarik. Chase Stuart did an excellent breakdown of the Dick Butkus conundrum–he is generally acknowledged as one of the best despite playing on some really bad teams and defenses. Here are the YPC allowed stats for the other five guys listed above.
- Ray Lewis, 3.42 ypc
- Jack Lambert, 3.55 ypc
- Joe Schmidt, 3.82 ypc
- Mike Singletary, 3.84 ypc
- Chuck Bednarik, 3.88 ypc
- Bill George, 4.06 ypc
Teammates matter, yes, they do, and this is not an individual statistic. It does go a long way to showing just how intense, meticulous and dominant Lewis was for so long. Through different linemen and teammates, year after year, the one constant in Baltimore has been that you don’t run on them. The Ravens have been in the top quarter of the league in that category every year besides his rookie year, and this one. In an era where we say that offenses are more consistent from year to year, it was Lewis who was the quarterback on the defense, keeping the Baltimore Ravens from falling back year after year for almost two decades.
In 2000, the Ravens turned in what is acknowledged as one of the best defensive performances ever. How many other Hall of Famers were on that team? From Stuart’s research above, you’ll see that compared to everyone but Butkus, Lewis did not have an overabundance of pro bowlers playing with him. Lambert played with twice as many per year, Schmidt and George played with more, and Singletary played with the exact same amount.
Given how long he played, and how well he played, and the leadership he continued to show on the field even as he aged past a time when many other greats were already retired, Ray Lewis is the greatest of all-time. He doesn’t need to come back at age 38 to prove anything.
[photo via US Presswire]