Ray Lewis’s Best Shot Lies With Baltimore

By Martin Steger

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is a unique man in a unique place. At an age when many players are a season or two into retirement, Lewis is poised to cash in with one last multimillion dollar contract. In an era where every move, every statement, every failure and every success are mercilessly dissected by media and fans, Lewis has an incredibly loyal following in Baltimore. Now he faces what could be the last big decision of his career: leave Baltimore for perhaps several million dollars more, or stay in the city that helped make him a superstar.

Lewis has openly talked about departing the Ravens to join the Rex Ryan-coached Jets or the star-studded, drama-soaked Cowboys. He’d be a good fit defensively on the Jets and a dominant leader on a team that needs one with the Cowboys, and he might be able to get a few million more from either team than from the free-agent-filled Ravens. Leaving the Ravens for either, however, would be a mistake if Lewis wants to add another Super Bowl to his legacy.

Let’s start with the Jets. Sure, Lewis would be reunited with Ryan, who had a big role in Lewis’ continued career resurgence. Sure, he’d be under the brightest of lights, his exploits showing up alongside those of the Giants and Yankees in the world’s biggest media microscope. And sure, he’d be on what looks like a playoff-caliber team that’s just a few players away. It’s too bad that one of the players the Jets lack is a quarterback: after the retirement of Brett Favre, they have an unresolved situation not unlike the quarterback issues that tortured Lewis for years in Baltimore.

Kellen Clemens or Brett Ratliff might very well work out, but neither Lewis nor anyone else can be sure of that. At least Baltimore has a definite quarterback of the future in Joe Flacco, along with the top-flight defense and running game needed to help him along. Lewis would not be improving his shot at another ring with a move up the east coast to New York, not with the Jets missing a definite quarterback.

The Cowboys have also caught Lewis’s eye, but they too would be a downgrade on the linebacker’s chance at another title. Tony Romo might be a more established quarterback than Joe Flacco, but Flacco has won two more playoff games. They weren’t pretty wins, but they were certainly better than Romo’s losses. Lewis and the Ravens defenders have pined for years for a quarterback who can take them to the top—and Flacco has done more to prove he can do that than Romo, at least as far as playoff success goes.

But aside from those two teams’ situations, a third variable comes into play for Lewis: money. We don’t know what the Ravens have officially offered him, nor do we know what the Jets and Cowboys are capable of. Lewis wants no part of a hometown discount—understandable, as this is his last contract. And nobody can expect Lewis to just unequivocally write off a few million dollars more, should the Jets or Cowboys exceed Baltimore’s offer.

In the end, though, would it really be worth it? Lewis enjoys intense loyalty from his fans in Baltimore, loyalty that has remained through his early-career murder investigation, through his media-assessed decline and now into his late-career resurgence.

In New York, he’d be hyper-scrutinized as a leader and player, studied relentlessly by fans and media who feel no loyalty to him. In Dallas, he’d be the guy tasked with policing T.O.’s act, with toughening Romo up and with making an underachieving defense elite. But in Baltimore, he’s already in the same sentence with Cal Ripken, Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson and other revered figures…and he has a better shot at bringing another Super Bowl title to Baltimore than to the other two cities. Which of these three situations sounds the best?

Lewis has reached the pinnacle of his profession in this city, and he has a chance to reach it again with the team Baltimore has built around him. The Ravens could very well match whatever the Cowboys and Jets have to offer monetarily—but the intangibles Baltimore offers should end any real bidding war before it starts.