This is a question that I think about a good bit. The media asks it, but never really gives it much thought; or they imply it, but don’t particularly put a lot of reasoning behind it. Check out this article by some dude at Fox Sports that no one knows, arguing him as the greatest defensive player of all time. It falls far short of anything persuasive; leading those already believing he is to reconfirm, and those that don’t shaking their heads in disbelief.
A quick note of clarification. For such a discussion, I feel strongly that we need to take Lewis’ personal life out of this discussion. I know what he did, and I know many people’s impression of Ray Lewis the man. I’m not here to argue anything about his character. I’m here to discuss Ray Lewis the football player, and in that discussion, the events of 2000 bear no relevance.
I’m going to spoil this article up front, and say that I don’t believe I could ever complete a compelling enough case to call Ray Lewis the greatest LB of all time. There are several problems that I run into when thinking about this. One major factor is simply my age, and therefore exposure to the NFL before the mid-80s. I’m about to turn 32, so even my exposure in the mid-80s was limited, and I flat out have seen nothing but clips and random games of many of the guys I could compare him to.
But by far the most difficult piece to overcome is simply that I would be trying to compare people for which there is very little quantitative analysis to be done. Statistics for defensive players even today is difficult. Tackles were never recorded until some time in the ‘90s, and there is controversy surrounding how they are recorded. Sacks were not recorded until the early ‘80s. It’s also difficult to accurately measure the impact of those stats. Defenders record many tackles, but is the LB filling the hole, or is he tackling a runner 10 yards down the field? Are they getting more cause they’re on the field for more plays? Did Ray Lewis really have a better year in ’97 when he made 156 tackles, than he did in ’00 when he made 107?
Football players in general must be at least partially measured qualitatively since many times stats aren’t perfectly comparable. How much better an NFL QB is Peyton Manning than Johnny Unitas? Stats would say he is far better, but qualitative comparison suggests they are actually very close…many would argue Unitas was better in his time than Manning.
This is even more true for defenders, where normal quantitative measures are virtually impossible to compare. Aside from the issue of recording of defensive statistics, you also face the basic issue of statistical significance on much lower occurrences. TDs vs. INTs thrown can be used to compare QBs somewhat well given they typically occur between 20 and 30 times per year, several hundred times over a great career. But sacks and INTs happen far less frequently, with even the top sack specialists having less than 150 sacks in most cases, and many playing the MLB/ILB position having far fewer than the classic blitzers of the OLB position.
As such, it’s virtually impossible to argue that Lewis, or any other LB worth discussing, is actually the best ever. There will always be those that believe someone else is the best of all time. It seems to simply make more sense to try to pick a few players that define the position, and talk about them as collectively the greatest of all time. At the LB position, there are a select few that I think are worthy of discussion.
If you were to ask me to compile a list of the greatest linebackers of all time, my list in alphabetical order would look like this:
Each of these six players have one thing most definitively in common. All of them were (are) feared by opposing offensive players. These are men that made their counterparts duck, ran away from them, hoped not to be hit by them. They made people hurt, and that fear and that hurt would play a significant factor in how opposing offenses would play against their defense, and desired to play against them.
Lewis is crossing into virtually uncharted territory for this group of players. His longevity is proving to be far better than most of the other greats. Just finishing his 13th season, he’s been invited to the Pro Bowl in each season he was the full time starter except his rookie year, and is a starter this year. This is exceptionally rare for the position. Of the five others on my list, only Nitschke played more. LT played the same, but Lewis is not finished. Barring a major injury (which cut Butkus’ career short), Lewis will likely pass Lambert as well.
To maintain such a high level of play over that span is also rare. Even if Lewis doesn’t play another down, he’s finishing off still as one of the best currently playing the game. LT played 13 years, but didn’t make the Pro Bowl any of his final three and averaged less than half as many sacks per year over that span as he’d recorded the rest of his career. Nitschke wasn’t an All-Pro voted player four of his last five seasons. Lambert played only 11 seasons and in two of his last three didn’t play half or more of the games. Butkus suffered a terrible knee injury, cutting his career short before the ten year mark. Only Singletary maintained his typical exceptional level of play for more than ten years, his for twelve. While it is far from guaranteed, Lewis is very likely to continue to play at a high level for at least another year, possibly another two to four. Should he play another two years at the same level he’s played the past three, he will have arguably the greatest longevity of any other player at the LB position - possibly of any defensive player - ever.
Lewis’ speed and vision set him apart from many of the other great linebackers. Much the way Nitschke did in the ‘60s and Taylor did in the ‘80s, Lewis is redefining the prototype for his position. Now you don’t just want someone that can crush a runner between the tackles and defend the middle for the pass, you want a guy that can rove sideline to sideline and protect the entire field. Many of the MLBs coming onto teams today are slightly smaller but much faster than their counterparts even 10-15 years ago (must be comparative…look at how much LBs weighed vs. DLs then vs. now).
Lewis patrols the field sideline to sideline as well if not better than anyone else ever has. One of his defining plays was in his Superbowl MVP win. Tiki Barber took a pitch in the backfield to the corner. Lewis tracked him down from behind before he could turn the corner up the field. He’s known for playing the outside runs about as well as he plays the inside runs.
Something that sets Lewis apart from other greats is his leadership. I don’t know of another player aside from maybe Singletary that is known to be the sort of leader Lewis has been for the Ravens. (I’m speaking from inexperience on many from pre-1985, someone can correct me if I’m wrong.)
Lewis is the unquestioned leader of the Ravens defense, and has been since he took over that leadership role between the ’98 and ’99 season. It was the ’98 season that truly transformed him from a merely good to an all time great linebacker, and the leadership role he assumed was one of the main reasons for it. Many defensive players have come and gone in Lewis’ tenure, but the greatness of the Ravens defense has always had him as a staple right in the middle of it.
Remove the years prior to ’99, where the team was building around him and he was still fresh and hadn’t yet assumed his leadership role. As primary starter, his defenses have never finished worse than 6th in the NFL, averaging 3rd, and finishing 1st or 2nd in six of those eight seasons he wasn’t hurt. In further support, he has missed ten plus games in ’02 and ’05. In those years, they finished 5th and 22nd. His teammates, when asked, will all say the same thing, that he is the heart and soul of the Ravens defense.
Is Ray Lewis the best linebacker of all time? I can’t say for sure that he is. I know he now belongs in the conversation. His credentials at this point make the argument possible, a rare feat, and one I believe only belongs to five others at the linebacker position. I do feel strongly that if Lewis isn’t the best linebacker ever, he isn’t far away from being the best.