AFTER ONLY FIVE seasons in the NFL, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis seems destined for the pro football Hall of Fame to take his place among the other elites at the position, including Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier and Ray Nitschke.
Lewis, if he remains healthy, might be the best of them all. Without question, he is the most athletic and versatile to ever play the game. None of the former greats could run sideline to sideline or cover like Lewis. In today's specialized game with theme packages and multiple formations, Butkus and Nitschke probably wouldn't be on the field in passing situations.
But Lewis never misses a down and rarely has missed playing time because of injury. Besides being the Associated Press' Most Valuable Player and MVP of the Super Bowl (by the way Trent Dilfer, you and the rest of the team should have passed on Disney, Mickey and Minnie just like they did on Lewis, staying within the team concept), he is the complete package.
And on his way to being the best ever at age 25.
A worldwide viewing audience Sunday finally got to see what Baltimore fans have been watching the four previous seasons.
"I didn't play against the Butkuses, Nitschkes and Laniers," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel and Hall of Fame tight end. "But I did play against the Mike Singletarys, Jack Lamberts, Randy Gradishars and Harry Carsons. None of those guys could change directions and run like Ray. As a matter of fact, I don't believe there has ever been anybody in the game who can reverse field like him.
"I think from now on, Ray has to be considered in that vein, one of the best ever and possibly the best to ever play the game."
The game has changed over the years and so have the players. Advances in weight training and diet have helped make players bigger, stronger and faster. Butkus began his career at 240 and left at 245. Lanier stayed around 245.
Lewis weighs 260, an offensive guard's weight in the 1950s and early '60s. Only Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland can match his size and only San Diego's Junior Seau has similar quickness, but no one has the combination. Except for Lewis.
"He keeps filling the blanks in, as they say," said Ravens head coach Brian Billick about Lewis leading the team to the Super Bowl and winning the two MVPs. "For some, they will say longevity is an issue, but there is nothing he can do about that. Ray's attributes are his passion for the game and the ability to read and react without hesitation."[Defensive coordinator] Marvin Lewis said the other day that Ray never takes a false step, and I agree with that," said Billick. "Guys like Ray, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice see things differently than we do. The world is a lot slower for them. I firmly believe they see things at a different pace and they don't know it because that's the way it has been for so long."
Lanier has watched Lewis play this season and thought he had an exceptional year. But he won't concede the title of the league's best middle linebacker ever.
"It's difficult to compare unless you have someone who has played against the other people," said Lanier, a Morgan State University graduate. "You also have to take a look at the system and what style they play. Some linebackers are asked to take on blocks, control gaps and then go to the ball. Others have different assignments."
That's a legitimate point. Lewis had the two sumo-wrestler defensive tackles - Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa - in front of him in 2000, but he didn't in the Ravens' first two years and he still led them in tackles. The Ravens take advantage of his speed by having Siragusa and Adams take on the guards and center, allowing Lewis to run free.
But there have been plays Lewis has made that no one, not Butkus, Nitschke, Lanier, Seau or anyone else can make.
If there is one signature play in Lewis' career, it came against the San Diego Chargers in the 1997 season. Running back/slot receiver Eric Metcalf caught an 11-yard pass over the middle at the San Diego 40-yard line in full stride and was heading toward the end zone. Lewis turned, and without much of an angle, ran Metcalf down from the opposite side of the field and tackled Metcalf at the 11-yard line to save a touchdown. Two plays later, Ravens cornerback Antonio Langham intercepted a Stan Humphries pass to halt the drive.
It was unreal. Incredible.
Only three games earlier, Lewis had run down Cincinnati wide several Carl Pickens at the Ravens' 8 after a 36-yard gain.
And how about Sunday?
With six minutes left in the first quarter, New York running back Tiki Barber was running around left end for what seemed would be a substantial gain, but Lewis bolted into the picture from the far side of the field to tackle him for only a 2-yard gain.
No other middle linebacker makes that play until Barber runs for 8 yards.
If Lewis had a weakness, it was earlier with pass coverage. It wasn't that Lewis couldn't cover, he wouldn't cover. He was lazy.
But did you see Lewis cover Barber all over the field Sunday? Wasn't that a nice play when he dove and knocked down a pass intended for Joe Jurevicius in the first quarter? Lewis knocked down four passes in the game, one resulting in an interception by outside linebacker Jamie Sharper.
Lewis has the complete game. He has Butkus' knockout punch and Nitschke's intimidation skills. Just ask Eddie George and Steve McNair. He has Lanier's speed, and an overdrive speed that Lanier could only dream of having. Just ask Pickens and Metcalf.
He has led the Ravens in tackles each of his five years in the league, been named to four AFC Pro Bowl squads and won the league's Defensive Player of the Year Award, a Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP.
Forget Disney and being on the Wheaties cereal box (kids don't eat it anymore anyway).
Lewis is headed for further greatness. He is headed to the Hall of Fame, where he will be in elite company, but also possibly the best of the bunch if he remains healthy.