OWINGS MILLS - His once famed sideline-to-sideline speed is greatly diminished. He no longer overpowers oncoming blockers the way he did during the prime of his career. And his athleticism has declined to the point that he can't stick with opposing running backs and tight ends in the passing game like he could five or 10 years ago.
Ray Lewis is not the game-changing playmaker he once was from a physical standpoint.
The images that stick out to most that watched Lewis during the early part of this season are ones of the once-dominant Lewis struggling at the point of attack - unable to shed blocks like he did during the twilight of his career - and then of Lewis walking off the field late in the fourth quarter of a Week 6 win against the Dallas Cowboys, his right arm dangling by his side after suffering what at the time appeared to be a season- and potentially career-ending torn triceps.
It's so easy to forget what Lewis was in his prime.
It's so easy to forget the countless number of crushing hits on opposing ball-carriers, the big plays in pass coverage, the sacks, and the myriad other signature moments during the course of Lewis' first 16 years in the NFL - the interception return for a touchdown to seal a victory over the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the 2000 playoffs, the bone-crushing crackback block to spring Chris McAlister's 107 yard return of a missed field goal in 2002, his fourth down stop of then-San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles to seal a Ravens victory in 2009, his jarring hit on an unsuspecting Dustin Keller amid Baltimore's season-opening win against the New York Jets in 2010. The list goes on.
He's the single-most important player in Ravens history. He was the guiding force behind Baltimore's record-setting defense in 2000. He's been the unquestioned physical and emotional leader of the Ravens' defense since the Ravens' inception in 199. And he's been the driving force of a defense that's ranked among the NFL's top-six 10 of the last 11 seasons that he's played in at least 12 games. And despite any regression from a physical standpoint, Lewis will go down as one of the most dominant players of his era and arguably the top player to ever man his position.
He is to the Ravens what Michael Jordan is to the Chicago Bulls. What Cal Ripken is to the Baltimore Orioles. What Peyton Manning is to the Indianapolis Colts. And what Tom Brady is to the New England Patriots.
His name is synonymous with Ravens football. And with the future Hall of Famer's announcement Wednesday that he plans to retire following the season, Sunday's AFC Wild Card matchup with the Colts is now about much more than just the game itself. It will likely be Lewis' last time in M&T Bank Stadium as a player and could potentially spell the end to an era that will go down in the annals of Baltimore sports history.
"Thinking about that being the last time of [Lewis] coming out of that stadium, I don't want it to be the last time I play with him," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "I want to win to just keep it going as long as possible because week-in and week-out it's a do-or-die deal. We want to win on Sunday."
Lewis' accolades speak for themselves.
He was selected to 13 Pro Bowls - a record for middle linebackers. He was a 10-time Associated Press first-team All-Pro - also a record for middle linebackers. He was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And he was the MVP of Baltimore's win against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
Lewis has started more games (227) than any middle linebacker in NFL history. He's the Ravens' all-time leader in tackles (2,643) and fumble recoveries (20). He's second in team history in both interceptions (31) and forced fumbles (20). And his 41.5 sacks are fourth-most in franchise history.
He led Baltimore in tackles during 14 of his first 16 NFL seasons - the only exceptions being injury-shortened seasons in 2002 and 2005 - and he's the only player in NFL history with 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.
He's described by those within the Ravens' organization as the ultimate teammate, the ultimate competitior, the ultimate leader.
And while he may not be the same type of physical presence he once was, Lewis hopes to spur one last run for his second Super Bowl trophy, a quest that begins with Sunday's matchup with the Colts.
"He's an emotional leader, and we're going to feed off his energy," cornerback Cary Williams said. "He's a great captain, and we rely on him heavily. ... We want to send him out on top. We want to send him out with a Super Bowl. We want to go out there and do that for him."