Best ILB: Who, Ray Lewis?

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It’s such a shame that the Baltimore Ravens never drafted any good inside linebackers.  I mean, if you rack your brain for hours, you’ll struggle to come up with one name — just one — that has made a lasting impression on the game of football.  For 17 years, the Ravens have been a franchise that has sorely lacked any motivating presence at middle linebacker, and that probably goes to explain why the defenses have been so paltry over the years.  If only there had been some sort of player who could have redefined the middle linebacker position that played his entire career as a Baltimore Raven…

I’ll wait while you grab some tissues to wipe away the tears from that guttural laughter…

To assign the topic of naming the best inside linebacker in Ravens’ history is similar to asking someone to name the most successful clown in McDonald’s history — it is unnecessary.  There are no other clowns.  There is only one.

Before I go any further in my comparison of Ray Lewis to Ronald McDonald (for my own safety, mostly), the crown of best inside linebacker in NFL history, let alone Ravens’ history, may not belong on any other cranium.  And to think that there were 25 players drafted before him in 1996.

You know that a player has had a lasting impression when a writer finds it quicker to search, “most tackles in NFL history,” to obtain his career statistics than simply typing his name.  But, that is just the kind of player that Ray Lewis was.  To have the privilege of watching him grow up on the football field and accomplish such feats in the process is something that not many fans get the pleasure of doing.  To add to that allure, in a way, Ray Lewis and the city of Baltimore grew up together and developed an unwavering passion for the city they represented.

As it turns out, the NFL didn’t start officially tracking tackles as a statistic until 2001, with each NFL team recording their own statistics independently.  As a result, there is no official list of all-time tackle leaders.  However, there have been attempts at compiling as comprehensive a list as possible, and Ray Lewis is within pinky finger’s distance of the top.

Pro-Football-Reference.com has Lewis down for 1,573 career tackles with 41.5 sacks, 31 interceptions and 19 forced fumbles.

If you’re wondering how many players in NFL history can claim having 40 or more sacks and 30 or more interceptions, the answer is nobody.  Lewis was a playmaker of undocumented proportions, and his presence in the middle of the Ravens’ defense was a ubiquitous force.

There is one memory in particular that sums up Lewis’ persona on the football field and demonstrates the level of respect around the league for his role.  During a feature on then-San Diego Charger, LaDainian Tomlinson — who at the time was in the process of breaking NFL records for rushing touchdowns in a single season — the ESPN NFL crew asked LT about a situation where the the only thing between him and the end-zone is Ray Lewis.

Would he go through him, or around him?

Tomlinson’s response was classic, and showed that even among the elite there are lines you don’t cross.

“I’m not crazy. I’m going around.”

Even still, for the imposing nature of Ray Lewis, what really set him apart were the unquantifiable aspects.  The preternatural ability to rally a group of grown men around a common goal.  Hell, there were countless moments where I myself wanted to strap on a helmet, run through my television screen and right into a brick wall — so long as it was what Ray believed was best.

For his entire career, Ray Lewis defined and created the standard for what it meant to Play Like A Raven.  The tough, hard-nosed mentality that is carried throughout the entire organization was installed by Lewis’ buoyant bravado.  And you’ll be hard pressed to find another Super Bowl team in recent history that got there solely on the back of their defense.

All of this made his exit all the sweeter, and seeing Ray Lewis and Ed Reed hoist that Lombardi Trophy with the confetti raining down reinforced the faith that had been invested in him all these years.

Though not without his flaws, Ray Lewis was as passionate a player as has ever strapped on cleats at the NFL level, and it is an absolute honor to say that he did his dance in Baltimore.

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