The Ravens' All-Pro middle linebacker was rewarded for his dominating play by winning the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award yesterday. The core of the Ravens' record-setting defense, Lewis was the runaway winner, receiving 30 of the 50 votes from the nationwide panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.
"This is a tremendous honor that I worked my butt off for, and it's finally here," said Lewis, the first Raven to win the award. "A lot of people probably had mixed emotions in the voting. There were some who probably thought I didn't deserve it because of the situation during the off-season. But the people who really know me, and really know football and what I did on the field, those were the people who voted for me."
Lewis, 25, has seen his world come full circle in less than a year.
Last January, he was accused of a double murder in Atlanta after a post-Super Bowl party and spent 16 days in jail. In exchange to pleading guilty to obstructing the police investigation, Lewis was cleared of the murder charges in June and was sentenced to 12 months' probation. Later, he was fined $250,000 by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue under the Player Conduct Policy.
But instead of succumbing to the critics off the field and frequent hecklers on the field, Lewis raised his game above his All-Pro level from the previous year. He has also been named the AFC's starting middle linebacker for this year's Pro Bowl, his fourth straight selection.
His presence set the tone for a defense that established NFL records for fewest points (165) and fewest rushing yards (970) allowed in a 16-game season. He led the Ravens in tackles (184) for the fifth straight season and was an all-around terror with three sacks, two interceptions, eight pass deflections and three fumble recoveries.
When asked if this award would silence critics who said he wouldn't be the same after his off-season ordeal, Lewis said, "They were wrong. Anyone who said that now knows it had no effect on me whatsoever."
Lewis was the overwhelming choice. He beat out New Orleans tackle La'Roi Glover, who had 11 votes - 19 fewer than Lewis.
Tampa Bay tackle Warren Sapp, last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, received four votes, while teammate Derrick Brooks, a linebacker, and New York Giants tackle Keith Hamilton got two votes apiece. The other remaining vote went to Miami end Jason Taylor.
"I'm happy, but I'm not surprised," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "That's how great I think he is. He's maybe the best linebacker I've ever seen. It's been a long year for him, but it's working out beautifully."
"He never ceases to amaze you how he can accomplish the goals that he sets for himself," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "He is an extremely hard worker and very deserving."
Although Lewis has had better years statistically, he considered this season his personal best.
"I've led the team in tackles before; I've been to the Pro Bowl before, but this team has never been to the playoffs or broke any kind of league records," said Lewis, who is preparing for Sunday's divisional playoff game at Tennessee.
"People don't understand how important it is to get national exposure. People locally, in Baltimore, might see how well you're playing every week, but when you get to the playoffs, the entire country and parts of the world get to see you play."
But Lewis had no plans to celebrate.
"I got to go to work in the morning," Lewis said. "There is a big game this week."
Sun staff writer Mike Preston contributed to this article.