Credit Ray Lewis for walking away at the right time

Ray Lewis did the right thing Wednesday.

It was a tough thing to do. It was a painful thing to do.

You could see it in his face, hear it in the catch in his voice, sense it in the shocked reactions of his teammates and coaches. But ultimately, No. 52's announcement that he'll retire at the end of the season was the right thing to do for the Ravens.

For starters, the Ray Lewis we saw this season was a far cry from the fearsome, dominating inside linebacker we saw for 17 mostly glorious seasons in Baltimore.

No one could argue that he'd lost a few steps — and maybe more than a few. Certainly, his famed sideline-to-sideline range had diminished greatly. He was a liability in pass coverage. It's what happens when you're 37 years old, still hanging on in a young man's game.

And who knows how effective he would have been next season, coming back from a serious triceps tear after having played only six regular-season games in 2012?

But here's another reason Lewis did the right thing: it spared the Ravens a huge, year-long distraction.

If he had announced back in training camp that this was his last season, the Ravens would have been in for one wearying, interminable soap opera.

For six long months, Ravens players and coaches would have been forced to deal with the inevitable what-will-life-be-like-after-Ray questions from the media.

At every away game, there would have been stirring halftime tributes to Lewis and a new wave of reporters descending on him, eager to chronicle the final chapter in the career of one of the greatest NFL players of all time.

If Lewis wasn't drained already from a lifetime playing a brutal sport, he sure would have been after that circus. It wouldn't have helped him as a player. Which means it wouldn't have helped the Ravens, either.

As the season drew to a close and his remaining games dwindled to a precious few, Ray would have dominated the spotlight even more. And the last thing a team in the midst of a playoff run needs is for the focus to shift from the quest for a Lombardi trophy to the best middle linebacker in history making his "last ride," as Lewis termed it Wednesday.

But Lewis' sudden retirement announcement spared the Ravens all that. It also gives them plenty of time to figure out what the post-Ray Lewis landscape will be for this team.

Now they have time to focus on replacing him through free agency and the NFL draft, if that's what it comes to.

And of course his retirement will help in purely financial terms, freeing up much-needed salary cap space. His base salary in 2013 would have been $5.4 million. Don't think the Ravens won't find a way to put some of that to good use.

Finally, Lewis did the right thing with the timing of his retirement announcement because the Ravens get to use it as emotional jet fuel for Sunday's playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Lewis, a proud man, doesn't want to go out on a bad note, with a first-round playoff loss in the final home game of his career. And you can bet he'll let his teammates know it. Oh, you can bet they'll be hearing from him on the subject ad nauseum for the next four days.

Look for the Ravens to be sky-high when No. 52 comes out of the tunnel during pre-game introductions Sunday.

And look for the sellout crowd at M&T Bank Stadium to be in a frenzy, which will only jack up the Ravens even more.

Funny how all this worked out.

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