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As my colleague Jamison Hensley reported today, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti says he wants to sign linebacker Ray Lewis to a new deal, either before his current contract expires at the end of the 2008 season, or after it expires if Lewis decided to become a free agent.

"If he becomes a free agent next year, I think the Ravens would probably outbid other teams," Bisciotti told Hensley at the annual NFL meetings.

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If you're a Ravens fan, this is either excellent news, or evidence that nostalgia might be getting in the way of a smart business decision. I honestly can't say, at this point, which way I'd lean if I had to make the decision. But the way you view the situation is probably representative of how you think a franchise should be run. On one hand, how do you not reward the best player in the history of your franchise? For all the occasional headaches, Lewis has been the most important football player to this city since Unitas. He'll go into the Hall of Fame as a Raven, and though he's been well compensated throughout his career, there is something to be said for giving iconic athletes a golden parachute at the end of the line. It promotes stability. It rewards loyalty. It shows your fans that, even though the NFL might be a cold business, certain players should be allowed to finish their careers with one team. The Orioles let Cal Ripken play third base into his early 40s, and even though he hit .238 and slugged an anemic .361 his final year, no one was going to complain.

On the other hand, football is different. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott didn't get to finish their careers with the 49ers, and that was in an era before the salary cap made it extremely difficult for a player to spend his entire career with one team. Even Unitas wasn't a Colt for his entire career.

Is Lewis worth another $19 million signing bonus? Probably not, to be honest. It's hard to argue otherwise. He was outstanding at times last year, playing like he was 26 again, but this isn't about right now. It's about two years from now. Lewis will be 33 years old this May. That's ancient for a linebacker. No one wants to see him take the Junior Seau route and end up chasing a ring in a Patriots uniform or (deep breath) a Colts uniform. But every NFL player knows that this is a business, and there are no discounts on either side when it comes to contract negotiations, even though we want it to be that way.

What would you do? Give him the money? Or let him walk, hope the bad feelings fade, then invite him back when he retires for the unveiling of a statue in his honor? (In my opinion, he's earned that much. Put it on the opposite side of the stadium, and let he and Unitas serve as dual pillars of football history in this town.)

In the meantime, while you mull it over, re-read this Sports Illustrated profile of Lewis by one of my literary heros, S.L. Price. It is a beautiful example of a writer painting a person not with blacks and whites, but with a thousand shades of gray.

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