Like it or not, Ravens should let Lewis walk rather than overpay
The Ravens have too many budding free agents to sell the farm for Ray Lewis
If Lewis cared about the team and city as much as he claimed, he'd take a cut
They must try hard to keep him, but back away if the bidding gets out of hand
Since Day 1, Ray Lewis has been the face of the Baltimore Ravens. Teammates and fans have deemed him irreplaceable. The head coach and owner have publicly proclaimed their willingness to shell out huge sums to retain his services. But despite all of this, should Lewis receive monster offers from other teams hoping to add his production and leadership, the prudent move for the Ravens would be to let him walk.
That thinking probably borders on sacrilege in Baltimore, but professional football is an unsentimental business. Heck, the Ravens know that all too well. They just jettisoned one of the best players in franchise history, cornerback Chris McAllister, and they need to be willing to do the same with Lewis should the bidding get out of hand.
Now, understand, I'm not calling for the Ravens to kick Lewis to the curb. Quite the contrary. I think the Ravens should make a strong effort to bring him back so he can pick up where he left off in 2008. But they can't allow their emotions to get the best of them when making this business decision.
After coach John Harbaugh's and owner Steve Bisciotti's public proclamations, it may already be too late. Bisciotti has even intimated the team will allow Lewis to test the market and then beat any offer Lewis receives to ensure he finishes his career with the Ravens. Whether or not that's true, the Ravens shouldn't have said so publicly, because it only hurts their ability to negotiate.
I suspect Lewis wants to stay in Baltimore, but is doing everything he can to drive up his value and get the Ravens to pony up. That may be why he's flirting with every team from the Dallas Cowboys to the New York Jets. More power to him, but hopefully the Ravens won't fall for it. The Cowboys, Jets or any other team would be foolish to shell out a ton of guaranteed money to a player who will be 34 when training camp starts in July. Despite his stellar '08 season, he's a declining player. Father Time is undefeated in NFL annals. Whichever team signs Lewis is going to get a player whose production will likely slip every year.
Let's be real clear about something. Lewis is the best linebacker I ever played against. By far. I started against him in 2004 and was amazed with how well-prepared he was and how much of a technician he could be. I remember thinking after the game that was what a Hall of Fame player was like. Every fan watching on TV can see his combination of size and speed. His ferociousness is evident from the last row in the stadium. But it is the other things that separate the good from the great in the NFL. He called out what play we were running a handful of times and was heading toward the running back's eventual path before I even snapped the ball on more than one occasion. Even when I did get to him, his butt-and-shed technique for disengaging from the block was picture perfect.
That said, the Ravens still need to be willing to move on. Lewis' potential suitors are attempting to pay not just for his tackling-ability, but also for his presence in the locker room and on the field as a leader. Too bad it doesn't work like that in the NFL, where leadership isn't for sale. The Jets learned that last year by naming Brett Favre and Alan Faneca captains. There is a process to becoming a franchise leader. Lewis has perfected that process in Baltimore, but that doesn't mean his show will play elsewhere. His presence is most widely felt in Baltimore and both he and the Ravens realize that.
Lewis is one of those rare players whose infectious personality can affect those around him. Ravens defensive tackle Justin Bannan was an average player in Buffalo. Now he is one of the better run-stuffing interior linemen in the league. Lewis had a similar effect on former Bills' defensive back Jim Leonhard.
Speaking of Leonhard, he is just one of the reasons why the Ravens can't break the bank for Lewis. They have ascending players in their prime such as Terrell Suggs, Jason Brown and Leonhard, as well as underrated and overshadowed linebacker Bart Scott, also a free agent, to worry about.
Scott's not the same talent Lewis is, but he's close enough that the Ravens need to consider signing him over Lewis if they can get Scott at about 70 cents on the Ray Lewis' dollar. Scott is an extremely physical player and an outstanding blitzer who is just 28 and didn't see any regular action his first three years in the league.
Who knows, maybe the Ravens already have this whole thing figured out. Maybe the public proclamations from Harbaugh and Bisciotti are intended to scare teams that might have an interest in Lewis. As in, don't waste your time because we will beat your offer and Ray doesn't want to leave anyway. Those teams might be worried that any negotiations they hold with Lewis would really just aid the Ravens.
One more thing. Spare me that talk about how much Lewis cares about the city of Baltimore and the Ravens' organization. If he truly cared as much as he has professed, he would be willing to take a little bit less money in order to ensure the Ravens can keep as many of their free agents as possible. If Suggs is willing to take a "hometown" discount, why can't the ultimate Raven?
The Ravens must attempt to keep Lewis in the fold ... but only if the price is right.
Whether I am talking to NFL fans on the radio or in public, they always seem to have the same types of questions. They want to know what the league is really like and are curious about the details that players take for granted but fans find intriguing.
For that reason, starting in March, I will respond to select questions that are posed in my Mailbag in an effort to deliver the information that inquiring minds want to know. One sample question I have gotten a number of times revolves around the number of jerseys, helmets, shorts, etc. a player gets at the end of a season. Fans want to know how much we get and the answer is that it depends on the franchise, but is typically very little.
As a matter of fact, after I got released by the Dallas Cowboys in 2003 I asked to keep my helmet as a memento. I had started my first seven games in the NFL for the 'Boys in 2002 and I wanted a keepsake to remember my time in Big D. I was told that I could have the helmet but that they were going to take $200 out of my paycheck. I laughed until I realized they were serious. I was appalled. I thought about saying forget it just to make a point but realized that would be shortsighted when looking at the big picture. So I took the helmet. Sure enough, two weeks later my final paycheck had been deducted $200 for equipment. And you thought Jerry Jones was generous.