No offense: Best player in NFL has No. 52 jersey

September 09, 2001|By Mike Preston

THE BEST player in the NFL doesn't play wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings or quarterback the Indianapolis Colts. He isn't a double threat for the St. Louis Rams and doesn't take handoffs from the Colts quarterback.

The best player in the NFL will be on the field today at PSINet Stadium in the 2001 opener when the Ravens begin defense of their Super Bowl title against the Chicago Bears. He wears No. 52.

The name is Ray Lewis.

He'll be easy to recognize. Look for the ugly dance (his only weakness) during pre-game introductions. He'll be the one flying all over the field, going sideline to sideline making tackles and plays that no other linebacker in the history of the league could make. When the game is over, he'll have 10 to 12 tackles, and Bears running back James Allen will have a lot of bruises because of collisions with Lewis.

Just another day at the office. Just another stop on the way to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

"After last year, people started mentioning his name with the Dick Butkuses and Jack Lamberts," said one AFC pro personnel director. "He already has done things that neither of them can do. He is the best. But the perception is that offensive players make more of an impact because they handle the ball so much."

It will always be that way. The Sporting News listed its top 100 players last week, and the top five were Vikings receiver Randy Moss, followed by Packers quarterback Brett Favre, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and Rams running back Marshall Faulk.

Did we expect anything different?

But the shocker was that Lewis was No. 9.

Here's a question to ponder: What do Moss, Favre, Warner, Manning and Faulk have in common? They were all sitting home on Jan. 28, Super Bowl Sunday, watching the best player in the NFL perform.

Based on last year's performance alone and the following criteria, Lewis has to be the best player in the league:

Durability: Lewis has missed four games since joining the team in 1996 and has been one of the league's top tacklers every year. Faulk and Warner missed several games last season. Breathe on Favre hard, and he complains of elbow pain, despite his 141 straight starts.

Attitude: There is no question that Lewis is the emotional and unchallenged leader of this team, and it has been that way from Day 1. He never complained about the Ravens' losing, even in the lean years. Moss sulks when he doesn't get the ball and complains about his team after tough losses. Teammates have criticized him for not going hard on every play.

Best at his position: Lewis has no peers who are close. There is a significant distance between him and Chicago's Brian Urlacher, Tennessee's Randall Godfrey and Miami's Zach Thomas. Warner and Manning are close in skills, as are Faulk and Indianapolis running back Edgerrin James. Only Moss has as much separation as Lewis, but remember, he's a crybaby and needs to grow up.

Impact on game: You have to game-plan wisely for Manning, Faulk and Warner. Moss is in another class. He is unstoppable, and when he draws double coverage, passing lanes open for other receivers. The negative is that Moss short-arms passes over the middle. With Lewis, screens are taken out of the opposition's playbook. He is the main reason the Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 37 games.

Big-game performance: This is no contest, based on last season. Manning has never won a playoff game, period. He gets that same puzzled look in big games that Troy Aikman had late in his career from concussions. Favre hasn't been to a playoff game since Reggie White was doing Chunky Soup commercials. Moss had only one catch in the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the Giants in last season's NFC Championship game.

Meanwhile, Lewis went to The Show last season. On the way, he smothered running back Eddie George and knocked out quarterback Steve McNair in one playoff game. He was Super Bowl MVP.

Lewis is so good, so fast, and has so much desire that you can't measure his impact on the Richter scale. Other non-skill players deserve mention in the debate over who's the best player - Dallas Cowboys guard Larry Allen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp and Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. But those guys don't change the face of an entire game.

Lewis, 26, has revolutionized his position, much in the same way Lawrence Taylor changed the role of outside linebacker.

"It used to be that you wanted this big, tough run stopper in the middle," said San Francisco 49ers general manager Terry Donahue. "They weren't always mobile. Ray is a very, very talented individual with good instincts. He is a gifted warrior with exceptional quickness. He can slip and slide blocks like no other. There is a lot of natural talent level there but a skill level only matched by maybe two or three others in the league."

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