Two stories illustrate the kind of influence inside linebacker Ray Lewis exerts on the Ravens, a team that he's trying to drag back into playoff contention:
On the morning of Aug. 18, the second-to-last day of the Ravens' training camp at McDaniel College in central Maryland, Lewis addressed his teammates and told them not to drive back to the locker room after practice as they usually do in the golf carts provided for them. Instead, he told them to walk the gantlet of fans who'd come to watch them work out, and autograph everything in sight. So 86 players, from Bennie Anderson to Dave Zastudil, spent up to 45 minutes signing on their long walk back to the showers.
Two days earlier, when the Ravens played their second preseason game, at Atlanta, cornerback Corey Fuller, a free-agent pickup who had been released by the Browns, watched in amazement as seven or eight defenders swarmed in on every tackle, whether it was on a running play up the middle or a pass play 15 yards downfield. When Fuller allowed a long completion, his heart sank. But when he returned to the huddle, Fuller heard a defensive lineman say, "Our fault. We gotta get more pressure." And Lewis fixed him with his crazed look and yelled, "Just know I'm coming! You got help from me!" Fuller thought the intensity level felt more like the playoffs than the preseason.
"Ray plays so hard that all these players on defense don't want to let him down," Fuller says. "They're more worried about facing him if they screw up than facing any coach."
In the Ravens' Super Bowl season of 2000, Lewis was a team leader, but veterans like Sam Adams and Rod Woodson and Tony Siragusa didn't need anybody to lead them. In 2003, with only six of the 22 starters from that team left, Lewis's grip is unchallenged. In part it's because of the magnetism of his personality. That's always been there, but now there's more glee in Lewis because he's fired up to play again after separating his left shoulder last fall and missing 11 of 16 games. "He's back in the toy store," coach Brian Billick says, "happier than ever."
"When you play with a separated shoulder," Lewis said after one practice, "you're not you. Just before I went in for surgery, I told my mother, 'When I wake up I'm gonna be a new man.' And that's how I feel. I can't wait to go out there every day. Fuller said to me one day in practice, 'Now I see why this team plays so well. They feed off your energy.' "
There's a lot to that. Look at the free agents who've left the Ravens. Cornerback Duane Starks had a pedestrian first year in Arizona. The Broncos have defensive tackle Lional Dalton on the trading block. Seen any Sunday night highlights of Houston linebacker Jamie Sharper? "The players who've left here aren't as successful as they were here," says minority owner Steve Bisciotti. "I think Ray gets the people around him to play 30 percent better than they are."
Lewis says his passion is what makes his teammates play better. That and getting them to put in the time. "In 2000 we had Hall of Famers," he says. "What can I tell Rod Woodson? But now we have a bunch of young guys who want to be great. I stress learning from film, doing the extra things. At the end of practice I say, 'If you stop your preparation here, you lose. We lose.' "
Lewis will play next to 250-pound plugger Edgerton Hartwell in the Ravens' 3-4 defense, freeing Lewis to range from sideline to sideline. Ends Adalius Thomas and Anthony Weaver combined for only 6� sacks last year, but they should be more productive with Lewis back—and with the addition of the 10th pick in the draft, Arizona State outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose stock slumped last spring because of a lousy 40-yard dash time. Euphoric to get Suggs, who had 24 sacks last fall, Billick laughs about his 40. "I'll worry about that," he says, "when they line the quarterback up 40 yards back from center."
The Ravens got the best pass rusher in the draft and now have a rebuilt Lewis. A pretty good defense might get downright scary.