Game of tag will help Lewis stick


December 30, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON | MIKE PRESTON,

Inside linebacker Ray Lewis has always been the face of this franchise, so the Ravens might as well make it official and designate him the franchise player.

There might not be another way of keeping Lewis after the season except to put that designation on him. If not, then Baltimore fans might have seen Lewis do his last pre-game dance Sunday when the Ravens clinched a playoff spot with a 27-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Lewis, 33, is close to the end of a seven-year contract that paid him $6.5 million this season. If he doesn't sign a new contract or if the Ravens don't designate him the franchise player by March, then Lewis would become an unrestricted free agent and could negotiate with other teams.

Both sides want to see Lewis retire as a Raven, but at what cost?

You know Lewis is going to ask to become one of the highest-paid players in the league. You know he is going to ask for a long-term deal that would include a huge signing bonus.

And if that's the case, then the Ravens should just say thanks, but no thanks and slap that franchise tag on him as fast as Lewis used to tag running backs.

It's absurd to give a 33-year-old player a lucrative, long-term contract, regardless of what he has meant to the franchise. It hasn't been a lopsided affair, because the Ravens have been loyal to Lewis. They've renegotiated his contract several times throughout his 13-year career, giving up substantial up-front money.

When Lewis ran into legal problems in Atlanta in 2000, he got full support from then-owner Art Modell and the entire organization.

So, this isn't all about loyalty. It's about business. Good business strategy suggests the Ravens offer Lewis a one- to two-year deal, and if he doesn't accept it, tag him.

Lewis won't be happy with the designation. Most players with his credentials wouldn't, but there doesn't appear to be a way to work out an agreement for both sides.

There is no doubt Lewis can still play at a high level. He stays in excellent shape, and the coaching staff controls his pace at practice. He had an outstanding first half of the 2008 season and has made the Pro Bowl for the 10th time.

And for the first time since 2003, when he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis played in all 16 games.

He has been the emotional leader of this team since Day One of his arrival in 1996 as the second of two first-round draft picks and also has been an ambassador for the Ravens, helping the team sign significant free agents.

But Lewis has been well compensated by the team. The Ravens have two other Pro Bowl linebackers who are in the final years of their contracts as well, Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs. Both are in the primes of their careers. Scott is 28, and Suggs is only 26.

A major priority for this team during the offseason is to get younger, especially on defense. It's nearly impossible these days for teams to invest a great deal of money at one position, so it's unlikely the Ravens would sign all three to long-term deals.

But they might be able to if they make Lewis the franchise player. As the designated player, Lewis would have made $8 million this season, the average salary of the top five players at his position. The salary would go up in 2009, and that would be a nice little raise for Lewis.

Lewis wouldn't be happy with the franchise label. He would sulk and miss the minicamps, just as Suggs did last year. He would probably report to training camp late and decline some of his leadership role as he did when the Ravens didn't offer him a contract extension a few years ago.

That's life in the NFL.

When negotiations begin once the season is over, Lewis will point out he led the team in tackles again and he helped rookie head coach John Harbaugh make a smooth transition in a locker room filled with surly veterans. He'll talk about how he gave up his radio talk show this season because that's what the Ravens wanted.

You can't argue against any of that. You can't question his leadership or his ability to still play at a high level.

But Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has to put all that aside, along with the emotion and Lewis' friendship with owner Steve Bisciotti. He can either offer Lewis a long-term deal, allow him to hit free agency or designate him the franchise player.

It's about what makes good business sense. Lewis has already been paid for the past. Now, you pay for the present and the future.

Listen to Mike Preston every Monday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

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