Ray Lewis is winding down a 17-year NFL career in style, with his Baltimore Ravens taking part in a second consecutive Championship Sunday. Whether or not Lewis caps off his final season with a second Super Bowl ring, the 12-time Pro Bowler is one of the most accomplished and revered players in NFL history. This begs the question: Is Ray Lewis the greatest inside linebacker of all time?
One thing's for sure: Lewis is the best inside linebacker I've ever seenI never understand these historical questions when it comes to football. How could I possibly know if Ray Lewis was a better player than Dick Butkus? Or if any modern player is better than all-time greats who I never saw play?
Football is not a sport where you can just add up statistics and figure out who is the best. Lewis' accomplishments certainly are in the mix with Butkus or any other inside linebacker. This much I am comfortable with: Ray Lewis is the best inside linebacker I've ever seen.
Lewis definitely is in the conversation, but he's had some off seasonsAt one time, Ray Lewis was the best inside linebacker in the game -- there's no doubt about that. Since around 2005 or so, I think it's difficult to say that. He's had one season of 100-plus solo tackles since that year, whereas he had 100 or more in seven of the prior nine seasons -- and one of those "misses" was because he was hurt (2002). While Lewis suddenly appeared to get quicker in his early 30s, he's slowed down the last couple of seasons. Overall, he was a great player who had a small mid-career slump, got better (named All-Pro in 2008 and 2009), then struggled the last couple of years. He also was a one-time distraction with a well-publicized trial hanging over his head.
Was he a leader? No question. His inspired speeches and guidance raised the overall level of play in Baltimore. Was he one of the best inside defenders ever, in both a 4-3 and a 3-4? Yep. Great in space, too (... earlier in his career). Best ever? That's tough. There's something to be said for retiring at the top of your game. The Ravens' run defense got beat badly this year with him on the field. And there are still those who feel that in Lewis' best seasons, he was protected by scheme, having mammoth defensive tackles in front of him like Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams.
I would put Lewis in the discussion with Mel Hein, Sam Huff, Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier and Mike Singletary. He might top the list due to his longevity, Super Bowl ring (and MVP), leadership and being a marked man on a defense for so long. You also have to hand it to a guy like Singletary, who retired as a good player, also had a Super Bowl ring and is one of the smartest guys to ever play the position. I'm OK with Lewis being considered the greatest, but I don't think it is a no-brainer.
Lewis headlined some outstanding defenses, but Butkus was a one-man wrecking crewIt's always going to be hard to compare players from different eras. Chuck Bednarik could claim to be the best of all time because he not only excelled at linebacker, but also at center, as the NFL's last 60-minute man.
But that said, I'm going with Dick Butkus. Yes, I wasn't alive when he played. I wasn't alive when Abraham Lincoln was president, either. But I've done enough research on both to draw my own conclusions based on the reports of people who were there. And according to those who were there, nobody was more feared than Butkus. One stat that really stands out to me is Butkus' 22 career interceptions -- in an era when they didn't throw the ball, especially against those awful Bears teams. This shows you how well he could move down the field.
Butkus didn't get much help from teammates, while Lewis was on some of the best defenses of all time with some great players. Butkus was a one-man band. I'd give Butkus the No. 1 spot in this debate, with Lewis just ahead of Bednarik.
Twenty years from now, we'll still be mesmerized by the complete package Lewis providedWhenever I'm presented with a "greatest of all time" debate, I feel like I'm doing a disservice if I start including players everyone says were great, but existed before my time. For instance, Johnny Unitas was incredible, but I can't make a list of greatest QBs with him on it because I didn't see him play live during his era. I think anyone who tries to do that is faking it. So I can only go by the greatest that I've seen.
In that vein? Yes, Ray Lewis is the greatest inside linebacker I've ever seen. It's not even close. Plenty of players are talented, but when you also combine his range, instincts, energy and leadership ability? He's on a new plane altogether. In 20 years, my generation of football fans are going to talk about Ray Lewis like my dad's generation talked about Dick Butkus. And his Wikipedia entry (if Wikipedia is still around in 2033), will be this: Ray Lewis was an inside linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens; the best player on a defense that dominated the NFL for over a decade. His ferociousness made him one of the most feared players to ever play the game. In the NFL's 100th anniversary list of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game, Lewis ranked second behind former New York Giant Lawrence Taylor. His famous pre-game dance has become a tradition in Baltimore, where the Ravens captain always leads the team onto the field with a version of Lewis' ritual.
Of course, in 20 years, fans will say things like, "He played when defenses were still allowed to have 11 people. How would he dominate now, when they only get nine?" But such is the life of debate.
Lewis is unquestionably the best of this generationSorry to be a pill, but this isn't a question anyone under the age of 70 can answer sincerely. The opinions of the rest of us are invalidated by the fact we didn't see Sam Huff or Dick Butkus or Chuck Bednarik play the game. (Matter of fact, some of my colleagues are too young to have even seen Jack Lambert play!)
Can we settle for "best of the generation?" Cause Ray certainly deserves that crown. I've never seen anyone -- let alone someone as big as Lewis -- get sideline-to-sideline faster than he did in his prime. What's more, his redemption story -- going from the league's biggest villain to one of its most beloved ambassadors -- provides a hopeful template for the best middle linebacker of the next generation, Manti Te'o. (Yes, I'm working his name into every conversation this week.)