Even Nolan has concerns. "Ray is great, but those other guys took a lot of pride in helping him be great," he says. "By using younger linemen, we may have players more concerned with making a play to keep their jobs than with keeping people off Ray."
Lewis scoffs at the notion that changing to the 3-4 will affect his game. "A defense is just a format the coaches give you," he says. "It's up to the players to determine how effective it is. That comes down to passion, energy and desire, and we still have a lot of those qualities around here." It also has something to do with intelligence, and Lewis may be the smartest linebacker in football.
But in 1999 Lewis still had a reckless streak that occasionally hurt the team. "Ray was trying to do too much," says Marvin Lewis. "He sometimes feels like he has to make every tackle, and he had a habit of leaving his responsibility and exposing another part of the defense to a big play. He had to learn that he couldn't play defense [simply] by reading the eyes of the quarterback or the ballcarrier."
Midway through the season, Ray went to Marvin for help, saying he wanted to see the game "through the eyes of a coach." Ray started taking better notes in meetings. He studied more at night. "You could see his evolution," says Burnett, now with the Miami Dolphins. "He became better at breaking down film, recognizing tendencies and understanding how offenses wanted to attack him." The extra work paid off. The following season, when Baltimore went 12-4 and won the championship, Lewis was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year and the Super Bowl MVP.
By then he had also become a coach of sorts. Teammates marvel at his ability to predict plays in practice and ask him if he's reading cues that nobody else can see. In March, Lewis strolled into Nolan's office, stared at the six new schemes on a bulletin board and immediately deciphered them. After receiving his playbook, Lewis asked to break down the schemes without any help from coaches. He wanted to determine how offenses would try to attack them.
"The game becomes easier around your fourth or fifth year, and that's what happened with Ray," says Ravens senior vice president Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns. "He still has the talent, but now he's even better from the neck up. He's gone from being a football player to being a pro football player."
But even Lewis acknowledges that he can't carry Baltimore alone. Team chemistry is important, and it won't come easily for a squad that has had so much turnover. Also, a locker room that was once brimming with outspoken personalities, like Burnett, Siragusa and free safety Rod Woodson, is almost devoid of leaders. Lewis thinks some of the younger Ravens are awed by their surroundings. "You can see it in their eyes when Ray makes a speech," Thomas says. "It's like they're thinking, That's really Ray Lewis talking to us."
Says Lewis, "These guys wouldn't be here if they couldn't play. They need to relax, but also understand our standards. They'll learn fast. If you tell young players how to do something, they'll play at full speed."
Lewis is confident that he can help prevent Baltimore's predicted demise. He is driven by the belief that as long as he's on the field, the Ravens have a chance. "Making plays, chasing people down sideline to sideline, leading the team in tackles, all that stuff is easy," Lewis says. "The only thing I care about now is taking this team to a high level." That will be no small challenge.