Fans in Baltimore gave Ray Lewis a thunderous send-off on Sunday night as he played his last home game before retiring. In typical Lewis-fashion, he returned the compliment by putting on a display that helped the Ravens to yet another playoff win and extended his career by at least one more week, albeit on the road.
It means that we now know that Lewis’s 17-year slog across the fields of America – all of which he has left pieces of himself on – will end in either Denver, Foxboro, Houston or, as Ravens fans are dreaming, in New Orleans on Super Sunday next month.
Regardless of where and how it ends, there is a far more interesting question to be answered, one which will probably be debated for years after Lewis takes off his shoulder pads and helmet for the last time and it is this – how will football judge Ray Lewis once his career is over?
The numbers alone are impressive. He has played 228 games, and it would have been more but for three seasons which were seriously hampered by injuries. In that time, he has had 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions, forced 19 fumbles and recovered 20. He has made 1,573 tackles and been in on 500 assists, and I will guarantee those players on the receiving end of those hits could tell a few stories and probably still have the marks to prove it. He was also voted to the Pro Bowl 13 times, was first-team All-Pro seven times, NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice and MVP of Super Bowl XXXV.
Lewis however, is one of those players who cannot be measured by numbers. He can only be evaluated by effect because he is the sort of player who drags teammates kicking and screaming to where he needs them to be. He gets out of teammates that 10 per cent extra that makes the difference between winning and losing.
He is, without doubt, one of the most devastating players of our time, a ferocious tackler, a fabulous reader of the game, a dominating physical and psychological presence. But anyone who knows Lewis and knows the NFL also knows that the debate is only just about to begin and it is going to rage for a long time because of the other side.
In five years’ time, when Lewis becomes eligible for Hall of Fame nomination, he should be one of those first-ballot, unanimous, absolute no-brainer selections. Anybody who plays football knows it, anybody who watches football knows it. He sits comfortably alongside Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary.
The question remains however, over how much the trouble in Atlanta will stick when it comes to evaluation. Whatever happened that night, will it be a factor when it comes to measuring the man’s NFL career?
In January 2000, at a party during Super Bowl week in Atlanta, Lewis was involved in a fight where two people were stabbed to death. Lewis fled the scene and the suit he was wearing – which the Fulton County DA alleged had blood on it – was never found. Lewis was one of three men arrested and charged with murder. He made a plea bargain to testify against the other two and had his charge reduced to obstruction of justice, which he accepted. The other two men were later acquitted. Years later Lewis settled financially out of court with family members of the two victims to avoid the threat of a civil action being brought.
In the intervening years, he has turned over his life to his religious beliefs and to trying to help kids in deprived areas and situations. To many, he has become a hero. To others, he is a man rehabilitated by his own mistakes and experiences. To others, he will always be the boorish malcontent who I witnessed personally at Super Bowl XXXV Media Day in Tampa when he refused to offer any word of condolence for the families of the previous year’s victims.
The transgressions of other players – notably OJ Simpson and Lawrence Taylor – have made for Hall of Fame debate in recent years and you can rest assured that Lewis will no different.
But the Hall of Fame is surely not a place where character is supposed to be measured. It is an institution which recognises football excellence. Super Bowl XXXV was the first time I saw Lewis play in the flesh and my immediate impression was that television didn’t do the man credit. From his middle linebacker position, I found his physical and mental speed to be breath-taking. I had never seen a player who had such instincts for the ball, such speed and force to get to where it was, and who meted out such punishing brutality once he got there. It was as if the football gods had got together one day, taken some flesh and bone, and decided to create the perfect linebacker.
Ray Lewis turned my stomach that Media Day 12 years ago. I found myself sickened by his attitude and demeanour. But five days later, he turned my head during the game. I didn’t walk away liking him but I knew I had just seen the best inside backer of my football-watching years and if I was on the Hall of Fame committee, that is all that would concern me.
It is for society to judge Lewis the man. The Hall of Fame’s job is to determine his value as a player and I don’t think there is a shred of doubt over what that valuation should be.
There were a lot of people playing Monday Morning Quarterback this week over the Robert Griffin situation in Washington. Or so it appeared. However, it should also be noted that plenty of pundits were weighing in on his injury prospects long before it happened.
Griffin led the Redskins to a 17-16 win on Monday Night Football on December 3, in a game where commentator and former Buccaneers head coach, Jon Gruden, voiced concern over how long his career was going to last.
And in a sense, that night summed up perfectly what Griffin is all about but also, sadly, why Gruden’s fears and instincts were correct. Gruden’s problem with what he saw that night was how much punishment Griffin was taking, not just the beating he was getting from sacks and pressure but how much he seemed to subject himself to it by standing in there too long or going on the run and looking for hits.
The NFL has introduced rules over the past 20 years which protect quarterbacks more than ever, including the one that allows running QBs to give themselves up in exchange for not being hit while in open field. Griffin does not appear to have any natural instinct for using that benefit. So on top of the physical pasting he is taking in the pocket, which has been immense, he is also opening himself up to some hit-hungry defenders once he escapes the protection of his linemen.
Gruden reckoned at the rate he was going in only his first season, Griffin either had to be re-educated in how to play in the NFL or face the prospect of a short professional career.
And it’s not as if Gruden was a lone voice. As far back as week two of the season, ESPN.com’s Jeffri Chadiha raised the subject on September 17 when he wrote:
“The Washington Redskins need to be careful. If you watched their game against the Rams on Sunday afternoon, that much was abundantly clear. It wasn't merely the sight of St. Louis defenders relentlessly pounding rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III that should've given Redskins coaches pause in their 31-28 loss. It's also the fact the Rams apparently had been planning such a battering for RG3 all week long.
“Nobody should be surprised that St. Louis wanted to hit Griffin as much as possible on Sunday. This is the way football is played. But when Griffin carries as much as he did against St. Louis - he ran for 82 yards on a variety of read options and improvised scrambles - it looks pretty perilous from this perspective. When he's nailed, it seems as if the Redskins are playing with serious fire.”
Playing with that fire came back to burn the Redskins on Sunday in Griffin’s first playoff game. Griffin went down injured but continued to play on while clearly not in great shape. The result now appears to be a double ligament tear in his right knee and the debate has begun once more on his style and also over whether or not coach Mike Shanahan should have pulled him from the game long before Griffin’s knee finally buckled under him and forced him out of the action.
The problem with Griffin, of course, is that it is his very style of play that makes him so exciting to watch. He is something of a throwback and when you see him run, you can feel yourself urging him on, cheering him down the sideline, rejoicing with every cut he makes, every defender’s tackle he evades. And we feel that way because over the years we have become bored of seeing QBs slide in order to avoid the big hit in open field.
After just one season, Griffin has already taken 30 sacks and goodness only knows how many hits both in the pocket and on the run. And now, after just one season, he has his first serious injury.
Is there blame to be dished out? It’s tough to blame Griffin, even though he is the one who needs to put his hand up and say he is nowhere near full strength. The guy just wants to play and is caught up in the moment. It’s also tough to blame coach Mike Shanahan. He has to listen to the player at a time when both know that the season could be over in an hour or so.
But let’s also consider this. Griffin came into the game injured and wearing a brace on his right knee. As early as the first quarter, on his first real scramble, he got up with a little bit of a limp. Anyone could see that even on hand offs to running backs, Griffin was then hobbling a little after he had handed off.
And as the game progressed, it got worse to the point where he was not dropping back properly on his pass attempts. He couldn’t fully plant his back foot when he wanted to step up. And all this was evident long before the moment that made me wince when his knee finally buckled under him, leading to his exit from the game.
My point is that if Griffin wants to damage himself, then that is his problem, although coaches and medical staff should also be there to protect him from himself as well as the opposition. But when he starts to hurt the team, then the situation has changed and that is where coaches have to take action.
Griffin was a large part of getting the Redskins into the playoffs but he was the reason in Sunday’s second half why they were not going to go any further.
Shanahan and his staff can spend the close season figuring out ways to protect him in the future and trying to tweak their game plan to take advantage of his talent but to reduce his exposure to danger.
But they can also spend that time thinking about whether or not leaving him in the game was in the best interests of the team for this season and many more to come.