Ray Lewis was a year older and a step slower last month as he began his 17th NFL season. He covered less ground on pass plays and offered less resistance on running plays. The laws of nature suggest that trend will continue if Lewis mounts a comeback next year.
Sadly, the effort probably isn't worth it. Not to the player and not to his employer, the Baltimore Ravens.
Lewis suffered a season-ending torn triceps in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 31-29 victory against the Dallas Cowboys. The future Hall of Fame linebacker who rarely misses a snap was a spectator as the Ravens staved off a pair of last-gasp drives that could have resulted in a loss.
But if you were watching TV with the sound down, and didn't know Lewis was injured as the cameras kept showing him, you would have thought he was sidelined for strategic reasons and the commentators were discussing the reality of a new era in Baltimore. The fact that such a transition is inevitable made the sight no less shocking.
All good things come to an end, and great players rarely script their final act. A handful walk away on top, like Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis exiting with Super Bowl trophies in hand. Others call it a career without a championship but with plenty of high-caliber ability left, like former Minnesota Vikings halfback Robert Smith.
Then there are those determined to squeeze in additional seasons, in unfamiliar uniforms, like Emmitt Smith (Arizona Cardinals) and Jerry Rice (Seattle Seahawks). A far cry from their former greatness, they accept being mediocre elsewhere after losing favored-son status at the place they called home.
Lewis, 37, has a decision ahead of him — to return or retire — and no one knows for sure what he'll do. He's probably not certain himself. It's too early in the process, with the healing yet to begin and the Ravens in the midst of an encouraging 5-1 season. No matter what Lewis eventually chooses, there are plenty of opinions right now on whether he'll come back. Just don't ask his coach for one.
"I'm not going to make any comment on that," John Harbaugh told reporters Monday. "That's for Ray to speak on. I admire Ray Lewis. Everybody in this room does. Anybody that knows him feels that way about him. So, I'll be looking forward to seeing what he says about that."
Lewis' close friend and former teammate Deion Sanders wasn't as reluctant. "The Ray Lewis I know will not end his career off this injury," Sanders wrote on Twitter. "He's conquered much more than this. He will determine when its over not a injury."
But there's a problem with that line of thinking, namely the definition of "it's over." When you've been as dominant as Lewis — a 13-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year — soldiering on only highlights the drop in your productivity. You might extend your career, but it no longer resembles the body of work that made you an all-time great.
Some call that going out "on your own terms."
Others call it hanging on too long.
There's no shame in an injury-induced retirement at the end of a long and decorated career. Lewis doesn't have to prove how tough and dedicated he is by rehabbing and coming back next season. His legend won't lose any luster if he resumes his diminished level of play, but he certainly can't enhance his resume further.
Lewis arguably would exhibit more pride and self-esteem in announcing his retirement than he would in defiantly vowing to play on.
If he wants to return simply because he loves football so much and doesn't mind the slippage in his game, I can't begrudge him that pursuit of happiness. I understand why some players don't walk away until they run out of suitors, though it's a bit depressing when sure-fire Hall of Famers won't move on.
The Ravens already have shifted this season, from defensive stalwarts led by Lewis and safety Ed Reed, to would-be offensive juggernauts led by quarterback Joe Flacco and halfback Ray Rice. Baltimore is uncharacteristically low in defensive rankings, including 26th in yards allowed, and just yielded a franchise-record 227 rushing yards to Dallas (the second consecutive foe to eclipse 200 yards rushing).
Baltimore achieved those numbers with Lewis' play obviously in decline. No one will blame him for declining to continue his descent next year — injury or not — as a 38-year-old linebacker in his 18th season.
There's nothing wrong with accepting those terms and making them your own.
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