Leading or receding?

Ravens teammates, coaches say less-vocal R. Lewis can still motivate

October 21, 2005|By JAMISON HENSLEY | JAMISON HENSLEY,SUN REPORTER

For most of his career, Ray Lewis has been considered the best at his position, an All-Pro linebacker in a class by himself.

These days, it just seems as though Lewis wants to be left by himself.

He has distanced himself by talking less frequently to local reporters. He declined an interview for a national pre-game show Sunday.

But the most startling scenes have come on game days, when he goes from the centerpiece of the defense to alone on the bench. On the sideline, Lewis has made a habit of sitting away from his teammates.

From the periphery, the face of the franchise is slowly fading into the background.

"I hope people don't misunderstand his approach is subtly different, but I know there's a purpose in it," coach Brian Billick said. "I hope people can understand Ray's focus to his job. It doesn't mean that he doesn't want to be a team leader, and he is that.

"There is a very clear line of distinction here. There should be no misunderstanding that he doesn't want the leadership role or he isn't willing to be interactive with the guys."

Despite the change in Lewis' public perception, Billick and his players have said there has been no noticeable difference in him behind closed doors.

According to Billick, Lewis remains the tempo-setter in practice, continues to have teammates over his house to watch film and still addresses the team at critical moments during the season.

"You think of someone who [has] Ray's status and you think, there's this cocky guy and you don't want to hang around him," said defensive end Tony Weaver, who has been a teammate of Lewis' since 2002. "And it's really the exact opposite. He's really probably one of the most personable and approachable guys you'll meet."

So, why don't players approach Lewis during games when he is seated on the far side of the bench?

During Sunday's game, Lewis' only significant conversation occurred with nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who came to Lewis with a question about the defense.

"That's Ray being in his mode," Weaver said. "When you got a guy who is in zone and he's doing his thing, you don't want to interrupt him."

Billick said he has not personally seen Lewis' seclusion on the sideline but has received calls about it on his weekly radio show.

"It could be very well him trying to get others to step up in that capacity," Billick said. "It's real easy when you have such a dynamic leader like Ray for it always to fall on him. That's sometimes too easy for the guys around him. That's a good thing to nurture leadership elsewhere."

Lewis has not spoken with the local media for the past 11 days yet participated in a conference call with Chicago reporters Wednesday.

After Sunday's game, he walked through a crowd of reporters and cameras huddled around his locker and bolted to the training room. He then had someone retrieve his belongings so he did not have to return. During the season, he has avoided talking after three of the Ravens' five games.

Since being drafted in the first round in 1996, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year had been meeting with the media once during the week and after games.

"I don't think there's any hidden message in it to the fans or the organization other than he's focused on his job," Billick said.

There have been some rumblings that Lewis has withdrawn from being the team spokesman because he is upset about not getting a new contract. Others see it as a product of Lewis becoming more religious and less self-centered.

But it's difficult to understand how Lewis sidesteps the spotlight at one moment and then embraces it on the field. His emphatic dance to cap pre-game introductions has become tradition, and so have his chest-thumping celebrations after almost every tackle.

Lewis hinted about becoming less vocal in the offseason.

"I don't want to be a GM, I don't want to be a coach," he said five months ago. "I'm going to be a player again, and end up being the Most Valuable Player, not just on defense, but for the entire league."

The players see Lewis as their MVP from the meeting rooms to the field. Before Terrell Suggs made his interception in Detroit, Lewis told him to move farther to the outside, putting him in position to make the play.

"The way he prepares, the way he talks to the linebackers and the way he speaks to the team, you know he's the same person," said pass rusher Peter Boulware, who is in his ninth season playing with Lewis. "If you know Ray for a while, what he says, he means."

Lewis has spoken to the entire team twice this season, which is about half of his normal average for a full season. His message before the game with the New York Jets - which followed the Ravens' 0-2 start - was to play together as a team.

"Ray looks for that moment," Weaver said. "Certain leaders have a knack for knowing when to do that."

The coaching staff and the team's personnel staff both believe Lewis' leadership has been as steady as his play this season.

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