Sorry, Ray, you must stay, play

April 22, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Two months ago, I wrote that the Ravens should ship Ray Lewis to another team if he continued to pout and generally demonstrate displeasure with the team's direction. He did so again this week in interviews with Comcast and ESPN, but I have changed my mind. The right thing for the Ravens to do is keep him and play him. And that's my final answer.

Why the change of opinion? First of all, it has become clear that the Ravens wouldn't get much in return for Lewis. A first-round pick in the 2006 NFL draft? That's pure fantasy. A fourth-rounder is more like it. Big deal.

Daunte Culpepper - a 29-year-old starting quarterback in the prime of his career, albeit coming off serious knee surgery - was only worth a second-rounder when he went from the Vikings to the Dolphins last month. Lewis would attract even slimmer offers as a 31-year-old (in May) linebacker who has experienced two major injuries in the past four seasons and is plainly on the way down.

The Culpepper trade illustrated just how drastically a team's trade position can be compromised when it obviously needs to unload a disgruntled star, and the Ravens would be in such a position with Lewis, who has issued his vaguely anarchistic comments in an obvious attempt to goad the Ravens into dealing him.

Instead of giving in to that, the Ravens should sit tight, weather the temporary "trade the bum" public relations firestorm and put the guy on the field. Lewis is still capable of being a starter and a solid contributor, maybe not the All-Pro he was in his prime or the centerpiece he still envisions himself to be, but certainly a piece of the puzzle for several more years, health willing. That's more valuable than any fourth-round pick.

Even if he is no longer a team leader, and in fact, the opposite - unpopular among teammates - Lewis is still the consummate professional and a future Hall of Famer. His presence would ensure that the team's bar remained set high on such issues as practice, conditioning and competitiveness.

He might be angry now over some perceived slight relating to his contract, but when training camp and the regular season rolled around, he would surely show up and play hard. That's what pros do, and Lewis is nothing if not that.

Besides, what choice does he have? The Ravens have all the leverage in this situation, every speck of it. Lewis has none. He signed a seven-year, $50 million contract with the team in 2002, and the last time I checked, that deal remains in effect.

In other words, Lewis is contractually obligated to play for the Ravens, and given how much he would earn for doing so (more than $5 million in base salary in 2006 alone), he surely would hold up his end of the deal.

The situation bears more than a passing resemblance to the Orioles' offseason saga starring Miguel Tejada, and watching that soap opera play itself out has also helped convince me to reverse my position on Lewis.

As it was happening, it seemed the Orioles had no choice but to deal Tejada, their All-Star shortstop, who was pouting about the team's direction and commitment to winning. The front office did mull over offers, but ultimately decided just to keep him and play him, believing the controversy would eventually ebb.

Tejada reported to spring training in a worrisome funk, but through last night's victory against the Yankees, he is hitting .384 and starting to chatter excitedly through games again, as he did during his first year and a half here. There's always a chance he could turn sour, especially if the team starts to lose, but at this point, simply by showing patience and holding onto their best player, the Orioles have bettered themselves.

The Ravens can do the same by similarly ignoring the Lewis headlines and just letting the situation ebb.

Controversies often seem worse than they really are today; the fire might seem hot while being stoked in real time by talk radio, Internet bulletin boards, blogs, cable TV outlets, newspapers, etc., but sometimes the heat is more manufactured than real, and wanes over time.

It might be undeniable that Lewis is upset enough to want out, but it's just as undeniable that he will be paid a lot of money to play for the Ravens in 2006, and if he has no choice, will show up and play hard and earn that money.

That, in the end, trumps all other factors, including the angry push of controversial headlines. In the NFL, what a player says doesn't really matter. It's what he does that counts.

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