Billick says he knew Lewis would play at a high level long past the point when most players fade. "He's one of the best-conditioned offseason athletes I've ever been around," the former Ravens coach says. "He has a very specific plan for how to deal with every point of his career."
Sharpe and Billick both say Lewis will benefit from his offseason weight loss (he's below 240 pounds, down from about 260 last year).
In his musical, preacher's voice, Lewis says he finds it easier, not harder, to gear up for a season as he gets older. This year, he began two weeks after the season-ending loss in New England, filling his days with five or even seven short, hard workouts. The pounds slid off.
Typical of Lewis, he has preached his methods to teammates. Hulking tackle Bryant McKinnie even tweeted a picture of the vegetable juicer the linebacker recommended.
Lewis has brushed aside all questions of whether this will be his last season. But unlike many athletes, he talks openly about the importance of leaving a legacy. One thing that keeps him going, he says, is meeting new generations of players who grew up watching him. "Hearing that you helped them change their lives," he says, "it's like, 'My God, son, you don't know what that means to me.'"
Some have wondered whether Lewis' pride will ever allow him to walk away from the game willingly. "I believe you always know," he says. "When you go at life as hard as I go at this game, you know when it's over."
'I knew I could still play'
Those who've been around the Ravens a long time talk about two Ed Reeds — one who wraps himself in a hoodie to avoid conversation, another who speaks with rare candor and emotion about the peaks and valleys of a football life.
The unguarded version stops to talk in the hallway of the team's training facility before a recent practice. Reed played in all 16 games last season but intercepted just three passes and at times looked reluctant to throw his injured neck and shoulder into tackles. Two weeks from the 2012 opener, he says he feels better than he has in a few years.
Unlike Lewis, Reed did not spend his first seasons in the league studying older stars for the secrets to longevity. He built his career more by feel, working out with college roommate Reggie Wayne in the early years, then doing it all by himself in future offseasons.
This year, he began workouts almost immediately after the Patriots loss, not wanting his hip, shoulder and neck injuries to worsen with inactivity. He dived into his work with the expectation of returning to the Ravens for an 11th season.
"If I was going to retire, it would have happened right after the season," Reed says, his voice low and slow like the soul singers he's been known to imitate.
But in the next breath, the story of his offseason becomes more complicated. Many mornings, he awoke to an internal debate, weighing the pros and cons of continuing his life's work.
"This is a gift that's been given to you, and if you can do it, and you're in the right mindset to do it, then go do it," Reed says. "If you're not in the right mindset, you tend to question things. And I didn't feel like my mind was here at the time. I didn't feel like I was in a place where football, where I was even thinking about it. I mean, I was thinking about it, but not with that same mentality I was in the past few years of 'I have to do this, I want to do this.' I wasn't there."
He was comfortable at home with his son, with a body that hasn't fully betrayed him, with a career that will surely send him to the Hall of Fame.
Pulling in the other direction were thoughts of chasing an elusive Super Bowl ring and of young teammates such as Webb and McClain, who lean on him for advice.
Reed talked with his father and a few close friends about the fleeting nature of football careers, about honoring the talent he still possesses. "I know there's a fight in me and a love that I have for this game," he says. "And also for a bunch of young guys that I mentor, where I knew I could still play, and I knew I could still help them."
Then there was the matter of his contract, which ends after this season. Did he skip minicamp and make some of his cryptic comments because he was angry about money?