Lewis' last dance?

Face of Ravens has uncertain future with team

December 28, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

As Ray Lewis emerges today from the smoke-filled tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens' fiery linebacker will again send the sellout crowd into a frenzy with his trademark arm-flailing, hip-thrusting gyrations.

But could this mark Lewis' last dance in Baltimore?

The longtime face of the franchise, Lewis is nearing the end of his contract, which places even more significance on this game.

Because the Ravens (10-5) would have to play all of their postseason games on the road as the lowest-seeded AFC playoff team, this could become the final Baltimore home game in Lewis' storied career.

So while the Ravens' playoff prospects are well defined - a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (5-10) today or a loss by the New England Patriots (10-5) clinches a berth - the future of Lewis is not.

Asked whether he has thought about the possibility that he could be making his last tackles here, Lewis shook his head.

"Absolutely not," Lewis said. "That would make me a very selfish individual to be thinking of that. That's not why you play the game. I'm out there trying to win a game."

Lewis, 33, is a major reason the Ravens have gone from a 5-11 team last season to a potential playoff club this year.

Playing at 260 pounds - 15 more than his usual playing weight - Lewis is leading the Ravens in tackles for the 11th time in 13 seasons (he was injured in 2002 and 2005) and is back to striking fear in running backs going up the middle. His hit on Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall broke the rookie's shoulder and ended his season.

After a couple of seasons when critics wondered whether Lewis was slowing down, the 13-year veteran has been determined to prove otherwise in the last year of his contract.

He will play his first full 16-game season since 2003, when he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year for the second time.

He remains an every-down linebacker - something Ravens coaches questioned in the offseason - recording 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions.

More important, the 10-time Pro Bowl selection is the unquestioned leader in the locker room, easing what could have been a tough coaching transition from Brian Billick to John Harbaugh.

Some players consider Lewis the pulse of the Ravens. Others think Lewis is the Ravens.

"It's like picturing the Bulls without Michael Jordan," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "It's hard to picture the Ravens' defense without [No.] 52 in the middle."

It's difficult in this age of football for a player to stay with one team for his entire career.

Some want to play beyond their prime, which forces teams to make difficult decisions. And some teams might want to keep their franchise players, but the salary cap precludes that at times.

That's why Joe Montana ended up with the Kansas City Chiefs, Emmitt Smith with the Arizona Cardinals and Brett Favre with the New York Jets.

"Over the course of time I've been here, you never think it," Lewis said of leaving the Ravens. "But I've seen crazier things. I've sat back and watched a lot of guys go through a long, dragged-out process. I've said to myself, 'I will never go through it.' "

The Ravens had never allowed Lewis to reach the final season of a contract, extending his deals two years before they expired.

Lewis, who is finishing a seven-year, $50 million contract (which included a then-NFL-record $19 million signing bonus), would become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in March unless the Ravens sign him to a new deal or use the franchise tag on him before that point.

In March, owner Steve Bisciotti said the Ravens "would probably outbid other teams" if Lewis became a free agent.

Rumors have circulated that the Ravens had struck a new deal with Lewis, but general manager Ozzie Newsome said they were untrue.

"There have been no negotiations," Newsome said last week. "We'll sit down and meet with Ray's people as soon as the season ends. Nothing has changed."

Lewis isn't the only Raven unsure whether he'll be playing his last game in Baltimore.

Other veteran Ravens such as kicker Matt Stover and linebackers Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott also are finishing up contracts.

But Lewis said he spoke with them and all agreed that contracts would not be discussed during the season.

"That's what's special about this team," Lewis said. "The conversations I've had with these guys are so serious about the prize. Our prize has never changed. Our prize is the Super Bowl."

Here's what the other veterans are saying about perhaps playing their final home game in Baltimore:

* Matt Stover, kicker:: the only player remaining from the Browns' relocation from Cleveland and the Ravens' all-time leader in scoring.

"You have to keep the game in perspective at the time. You live in the now. You can't live too much in the future. There is enough worry in that in itself. I'm not going to worry. I'm going to concern myself with the game against Jacksonville."

* Bart Scott, linebacker: : former undrafted player who is closing in on his fourth straight 100-tackle season.

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