Jonathan Ogden vs. Ray Lewis: Who was the greatest Raven?

It is an argument that has gone on for nearly a decade: Who is the greatest player in Ravens history, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden or linebacker Ray Lewis?

The debate seems to have hit an all-time high this week with Ogden, the team's first draft pick ever in 1996, being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. But there really shouldn't be any more arguments.

If you want the total package, which includes being a team leader, a mentor and having charisma while also being one of the best middle linebackers to ever play, then Lewis is No. 1.

If you want a player who was truly dominant, an athletic wonder, a great technician and the best to ever play the position in the history of the NFL, then it's Ogden.

Lewis had great speed and was the first middle linebacker to run sideline to sideline, which changed how his position was played. But Lewis had help throughout most of his career, including two sumo-wrestling defensive tackles in front of him in Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, and later Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg.

Ogden never had help. Each week for 12 seasons, Ogden took on some of the best pass rushers in the game, and he overwhelmed all of them.

It was mano-a-mano.

"To steal a quote, you never leave home without him," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "When we had Jonathan, we didn't care who we were playing. We played against some of the best pass rushers — guys that have gone into the Hall of Fame. But when we had Jonathan, we didn't worry about those guys. And when you have someone like that, it just expands your offense and your ability to do things."

That's what few people understand. Lewis made plays that could impact a game, but Ogden changed the strategy as well — a rarity among offensive linemen.

Former Ravens guard Wally Williams chose Lewis over Ogden, but might have changed his mind after we talked about Ogden's dominance.

"Wow, he really was like a great, shutdown cornerback when you come to think of it," said Williams, who played next to Ogden early in the soon-to-be Hall of Famer's career. "That man took away one third of a football field because you couldn't get any pressure from that side. That's amazing stuff."

Lewis had great athleticism in his own right, but he wasn't a brute at linebacker who could take on blocks and shed them. Ogden took his prototype to another level.

At 6-9 and 345 pounds, he had the foot speed of a tight end and could bend like a guard or center to block smaller defensive tackles, ends or linebackers. Like Lewis, Ogden could embarrass opponents and take away their desire to play against him, regardless if it was Tony Brackens, Jevon Kearse or Simeon Rice.

"Ogden was extremely cerebral in the way he approached the game," Williams said. "To play the way the way Ray did for 17 years is phenomenal. To play middle linebacker is a grind with guys coming at you all the time, cutting you, going after your knees, and Ray played with the same passion in the 17th year as he did in his first season, which is a testimony to his greatness. On longevity, you would have to go with Ray.

"But if you got to Ray, if you could get in his chest, then it was a wrap — he could be blocked. There was nothing you could do with J.O., because he was an athletic marvel blessed with that size. There has never been anyone like him. It might be another 50 or 60 years before we see another J.O."

Their personalities were certainly different. Lewis had flair. He once had an entourage and wore mink coats and custom-made suits. He had the pre-game dance named "The Squirrel." Lewis would get the crowds rocking at M&T Bank Stadium by sticking out his tongue on the Jumbotron.

He was also a great mentor, a workaholic who positively influenced players — not just on the Ravens, but throughout the league.

Ogden wanted nothing to do with TV cameras. He was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy who accounted for every penny he ever earned. He preferred reading a novel to going to a night club, but he led in his own special way.

When he occasionally threw his helmet down on the sideline because he wanted the Ravens to run the ball more, he got everyone's attention.

"Man oh man, that's a tough one," former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis said when asked who he thought was the greatest Raven. "I'd probably say Ray because of what he accomplished, his leadership on the field and how he became the face of the organization. But J.O. was a staple of the franchise as well, but offensive linemen never get any credit.

"We didn't have any offensive leaders, but when J.O. spoke, it spoke volumes. Technically and fundamentally speaking, he is the best Raven ever. When you look at his career, he never played with any good quarterbacks until he got Steve McNair late in McNair's career. He earned everything on his own."

The debate might go on for another decade, at least until Lewis gets inducted into the Hall of Fame in five years. But it all goes back to one spring day in April 1996 when Newsome selected Ogden with the fourth overall pick and Lewis at No. 26 in the first round. Both went on to greatness, but no Raven has ever dominated like Ogden.

"Football is a hard game," Newsome said. "It's hard to play. Jonathan made it look so easy. I don't know if he even had to sweat half the time when he was out there playing."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

 
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