Ray Lewis is out for the season after completely tearing his triceps. I’ll pause for a moment while you sit and stare blankly, trying to comprehend the knowledge that the man who screams at you every time you turn on Madden 13 is in fact made of human parts, and he’s capable of feeling pain.
Bro hugs all around for Ray Ray.
Immediately the speculation will begin regarding the likelihood that this is far more than merely the end of Lewis’ season, and instead we’ve seen the end of his career. As Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said during his press conference this afternoon, that’s a question only Lewis can answer.
And really, that’s the only response he can give, and at this point we’re all just speculating. But as Sports Illustrated’s Peter King noted, the reasons for Lewis to walk away are overwhelming. Let’s start with the rigorous rehab that’s now required from a 37-year-old body, the same body that also suffered a major injury last year, causing Lewis to miss four games. That came after he had played in 59 straight games, and it was Lewis’ longest absence since 2005.
Then there’s his family life — and specifically his desire to watch his son play for the Miami Hurricanes next year — and the inviting glare of the media, and the many opportunities that will greet him in the football afterlife. Lewis has a uniquely charismatic quality that shines through instinctively whenever he speaks, and it immediately draws in the audience. Conviction is a highly sought after commodity around the panels of retired players that pollute our television airwaves every Sunday. While someone like Shannon Sharpe possesses that quality, the difference with Lewis is that he’s able to put together a coherent thought.
But no, we don’t know Lewis’ future, and we probably won’t know anything for a while. What we do know, though, is that even if Lewis has lost a step, playing without him for the remainder of this season will still be difficult. While writing off the Ravens’ season entirely seems a little premature even with Lewis and Webb gone in one day (the Texans still made the playoffs while being dismantled by injuries, though they did it in a weaker division), the Ravens now have two massive hurdles to overcome.
We discussed Webb and his impact on the secondary earlier, and specifically the Ravens’ red-zone defense. But Lewis contributes in multiple areas. Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus notes that although Lewis may not get to as many ball carriers now due to his declining foot speed, when he gets there, the tackle is made. He only missed one tackle this season.
The loss of that tackling efficiency makes the Ravens an even greater target if you’re looking for an ideal defense to stream a running back against, and you can have significantly increased confidence in your usual fantasy starting studs when they oppose Baltimore. Arian Foster will take the first hack at the Ravens’ front seven sans Lewis in Week 7, and Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden, Ryan Mathews, Alfred Morris, and Ahmad Bradshaw get swings too.
In fairness, though, any continued weakness against the run won’t fall solely on the shoulders of Lewis and his absence, as this is a defense that’s given up 441 yards on the ground over just the past two weeks. The major deficiency without Lewis could come in pass coverage, where Jameel McClain is considered a liability. A rotation of McClain and Dannell Ellerbe filled in for Lewis last year, with McClain regularly pulled on passing downs. As Pro Football Focus also observed, a pass catcher that was solely Lewis’ responsibility was targeted 21 times this year, and he allowed 15 receptions (71.4 percent).
But let’s return to that step Lewis has apparently lost in his travels, because right now our judgement could be clouded by thoughts of his legacy, and the possibility that we’ve seen him run out onto the field after bursting through a fireball for the last time. As part of his usual roundup of the Sunday carnage, Yahoo’s Jason Cole spoke to a former player, and the grade given for Lewis’ physical abilities was something far below average.
Yes, Lewis is the emotional leader of the team, but there are plenty of people around the league who will tell you he has lost a step. One former player said recently: “I can’t believe they still leave him on the field on third down. You can see that he knows where to be, but he just can’t get there. You can see he lost weight to maintain his quickness, but it’s not working.”
Last year the Ravens won all four of the games they played without Lewis (combined score of 95-60), but that sample size is both small, and misleading. The four teams over that stretch (Bengals, 49ers, Browns, Colts) had offenses that were ranked in the bottom third of the league, and three were 25th or worse.
Making the playoffs may require the acceleration of an identity shift that’s already beginning in Baltimore, with the focus moving swiftly to the offense and the battery of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, and away from the bruising, battering defense. Come back soon, Terrell Suggs.