It is virtually unfathomable to consider the Baltimore Ravens without Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis. He has defined the franchise and been its leader seemingly from the day Baltimore took him with its second pick in its first draft class back in 1996. But, given all that transpired Sunday in Baltimore, and given that Lewis has a season-ending torn triceps injury, it is not without reason to wonder if perhaps the icon has played his last game in the purple and black.
This setback could mean that next season, then at age 37, there are no guarantees moving forward. A change that was inevitable, but one Lewis has fought so hard to stave off, could be afoot, with more questions than answers. It's a cruel thought to consider, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't run through my head, and I doubt I'm alone.
Would Lewis even want to come back? With his play already slipping -- as would be the case for any mortal linebacker approaching age 40 -- is his body telling him something, to go out while still close enough to the top? With the Ravens already facing possibly some uncomfortable issues already this offseason, given the age and plummeting production of their once-unimpeachable defense -- would this prove to be the time to move on, with Lewis set to make $5.4 million in 2013? And, dare I utter the thought, could the Ravens defense, particularly the run game, be better without Lewis?
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Make no mistake, no one would ever discredit the unparalleled leadership, football intellect, spiritual and emotional lift and sheer presence that Lewis brings to any locker room, any huddle, any field of play. But, again, nothing is forever, particularly in this sport, and at some point there will come a time when the Ravens open a season without Lewis on the roster to serve as that sensei.
These are quandaries no franchise covets. There is a degree of deference and respect for the man -- and what he gave to the team and the city and the impeccable on-field service for all those years; but there is also a balance in that this is a business that requires uncompromising honesty at times as teams change and evolve. I can recall covering the Baltimore Orioles near the end of Cal Ripken's career, and watching the verbal tiptoeing that went on in contract negotiations and the eventual move from shortstop and then finally, the end, and it is rarely smooth with any player who fans feels this passionately about.
But even the Iron Man eventually made way.
Lewis, who slimmed down in the offseason to try to run in coverage in this era of freakishly gifted tight ends and all these spread formations, was getting washed out in the run game more than ever before, scouts say. And Baltimore's run defense has been horrible, allowing 200 yards in consecutive games, getting gashed every week. The loss of edge-setter Jarret Johnson in free agency has been crushing, and the struggles in the run game, when coupled with a limp pass rush sans Terrell Suggs and now the expected loss of top corner Lardarius Webb for the season with an ACL tear, leaves this defense in perilous straits.
New ideas, a new approach and possibly new personnel are required to try to right the run defense, and the overall defense, and perhaps younger legs may fare better in some spots to some degree.
Personally, as a lifelong Baltimorean who has had the pleasure to watch Lewis' entire career from fairly close range, I hope Lewis comes back and then goes out fully on his own terms. But I'm also not naïve enough to know football rarely provides that opportunity, and if Lewis cannot play football again, I can only wonder about what this winter will be like in my hometown, and if in fact the time when No. 52 is in the rafters and not on the field is near.
We were reaching the point where some teams were getting desperate. In a league of parity, I will concede that few teams truly fall out of it, but if you don't have at least two wins by the end of Week 6 -- which really, isn't too much to ask, is it? -- then you are threatening to let your season slip away.
A few teams needed to get up off the mat and show a little something, clubs that entered the season harboring playoff talk, and by and large they did. The Titans were teetering on overall ineptitude but managed to stick it out over the wounded Steelers on Thursday night, albeit aided and assisted by getting to host a home game on a very short week. The Chiefs, the most tumultuous team in America these days, had to show something against the slumping Bucs, but managed to show only that they could indeed sink lower in another lopsided loss. And, for my money, the Lions made the most significant statement of all. A franchise that showed so much promise in surging to the postseason a year ago badly needed a win at Philadelphia.
It wouldn't be easy, nothing ever is with these Lions, really, but if Detroit was going to have a chance to stay on the periphery of the postseason picture, coming out of the bye with a loss to drop to 1-4 wouldn't get it done. And when they fell behind by 10 points late in the game, it certainly looked like Detroit was in fact done. Matthew Stafford couldn't get anything going, Calvin Johnson was suffocated in double coverage for the most part. Detroit's defense was having its best outing of the season, by far, but it looked like it would be for naught.
Then Stafford to Megatron got rolling (Johnson had more than 100 yards receiving in the fourth quarter), Stafford hit big throws to Tony Scheffler and Nate Burleson, and even after getting stopped at the 1-yard line late and having to settle for a game-tying field goal, the Lions still pulled it out in overtime. They scored 17 points in the final quarter, began to get some of their passing mojo back, and put some of their late-game nightmares to rest.
Mikel Leshoure didn't get the workload the Lions would have hoped, with them chasing the game in the second half and Stafford attempting 45 passes, but the young running back averaged nearly five yards per carry and is providing that physical element Detroit has long been seeking to balance its vertical game.
The pass rush, the supposed hallmark of their defense, finally came back, with Michael Vick sacked on successive plays in overtime to help set up Jason Hanson's game-winning field goal. And the return of stud safety Louis Delmas, making his first appearance of the season, was immense. He changed the face of that suffering secondary, aiding the tackling, bringing a hard-nosed edge to it, making big stuffs in the run game, creating turnovers. His presence cannot be overstated, and keeping him healthy is imperative.
Recall, Detroit limped into its bye following losses to the hapless Titans and the rival Vikings. The Tennessee loss was devastating, with ridiculous turnovers and special-teams miscues resulting in the Lions blowing what had been an improbable comeback. The loss to the Vikings led to some soul searching, and a look up the standings of the NFC North.
Consider this a strong step in the right direction, and if the Lions can manage to do to Chicago next Monday night what they did to the Bears on Monday night just about a year ago, then you have to start looking at the Lions as a viable option in what looks like a wide-open division.
• That was a very tough loss for the Rams in Miami. As the chief bandwagon leader for this, the Year of the Rookie Kicker, I was surprised to see Greg Zuerlein miss three attempts Sunday. But I continue to be impressed with how quickly Jeff Fisher has added punch to that defense. They get after the quarterback and have become a physical, tough team to play against, and they managed to take that same chippy defense on the road to Miami this week.
• While on the topic of aging, once-superb defenders, it's become more and more difficult to watch Dwight Freeney. He doesn't look close to being the pass rusher he once was, and seems perpetually hobbled by injuries. Especially with no Robert Mathis opposite him in Sunday's thrashing by the Jets, some of the images were striking.
• Anyone who watched Robert Griffin III sprint and slither down the sidelines Sunday for a 76-yard touchdown won't forget it anytime soon. This kid is special. To come back from a concussion with this stellar outing -- he was 17-for-22 as a passer, ran for 138 yards, and accounted for three touchdowns -- and get the Redskins their first home win in a year in the process, should provide a boost for weeks to come. He will run away with Rookie of the Year if the Redskins can keep him healthy. He's already among the league leaders in rushing touchdowns, and he's already set the franchise record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback with five. He bounced back from an early touchdown and 9-0 deficit, got better as the game wore on and clearly loves the fourth quarter.
• Had Kevin Kolb managed to stay in the game and complete the final drive of regulation I have no doubt the Cardinals would have knocked off the Bills. Instead Kolb eventually was knocked out of the game with a rib injury, with his porous offensive line getting him battered and beaten again. Kolb had led a game-tying drive, and continually confounded the Bills with his feet, rushing five times for 66 yards -- often on third down -- and moving the Cards again on his final drive. Kolb had just pulled off another big run on the play prior to being slammed hard to the ground, and making way for John Skelton. Jay Feely missed a kick he normally makes, but Skelton was beyond shaky, and his interception deep in Arizona territory in overtime gave the game away. There is no quarterback controversy in Arizona and hasn't been for some time, but now the Cardinals just need Kolb back as soon as possible.
• What's happened to the Eagles pass rush? Seven sacks through six games? Seriously? With Jason Babin and Trent Cole and Cullen Jenkins and the wide nine, and with drafting Fletcher Cox and with all of their cover corners who can hold up the back end and allow the guys up front to play the run on the way to the quarterback? As much as Vick is under fire for the team's minus-9 turnover ratio, if this team was getting to the quarterback as expected they would be creating more takeaways as well. As much as we've seen Stafford knocked around in his brief career, I thought Sunday might be a day where the Eagles rush got healthy, but they mustered not a single sack. Philadelphia enters its bye with a minus-10 ratio in sacks allowed to sacks created -- if that continues through the season I don't see them in the playoffs, or Vick making it through the season.
• Can't remember another year where I have seen so many touchdowns negated by offensive pass interference, and it's not just from the replacement refs.
• Full marks to Antonio Cromartie, who is playing at an elite level with Darrelle Revis out, getting his hands on balls, shifting momentum and is a big reason why the Jets, despite all of their issues, are in a four-way tie in the AFC East at 3-3.