Smiles all around

A few years from now, when Ray Lewis decides to retire, the Pro Bowl inside linebacker will be celebrated as a lifelong Raven and have a statue erected at M&T; Bank Stadium in his honor.

But yesterday, in fielding questions for the first time since re-signing with the Ravens, Lewis dismissed "flirtations" with other teams and repeatedly insisted that Baltimore was his first choice in free agency.


"My family is Baltimore," said Lewis, who wore sunglasses and a yellowish-tan, open-neck shirt during the half-hour interview session. "The bottom line: Was there ever a decision for me to leave Baltimore? I don't think so. I didn't visit anyone else's facility. That would have taken away from what I do for my city. When I put that purple jersey on my back, I give everything that I have for every fan that's in the stands."

Before Lewis signed his seven-year, $44.5 million contract (which is essentially a three-year, $22 million deal), he irritated some of his fan base when he didn't make it clear he wanted to return to the Ravens.


A few days before the Pro Bowl, Lewis acknowledged in an interview with the NFL Network that he would be interested in the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets. Lewis' explanation yesterday: "At the Pro Bowl, you have a couple of mai tais [and] you just have a great time. They ask you questions, and you answer the questions."

Then, leading up to the start of free agency, Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said Lewis told him it was his "dream" to play in Dallas and expressed his desire to sign there numerous times. Lewis' explanation: He told Ware he dreamed of playing for the Cowboys when he was 9 years old.

"Dallas has their own legacy," Lewis said. "My legacy is with Baltimore. It's going to end with Baltimore."

Lewis didn't directly answer a question about whether any teams had contacted him. It is believed the Jets chose to sign former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott instead and the Cowboys never expressed interest.

"A lot of things can be flirtatious," Lewis said. "But the bottom line is how far are you willing to flirt. I didn't go that far. I was OK flirting with the woman I started with - and that's the Ravens."

The delay in Lewis' re-signing with the Ravens - he waited six days into free agency to do so - also caused many to wonder whether the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year truly wanted to end his career here.

Owner Steve Bisciotti said the Ravens offered Lewis a contract "higher than most 33-year-olds ever see" at the end of the season. Lewis wanted to test free agency for the first time in his 13-year career and asked the team to keep the offer on the table.

"He gave us 13 years; we gave him a week," Bisciotti said. "He went out there to see if he could get a lot more. He really didn't want to leave. But if somebody is going to offer him $10 million more over three years, I would tell him to go. There was no animosity."


General manager Ozzie Newsome had personal reasons for closing the deal.

"I couldn't go to the drugstore, I couldn't go to dinner, I couldn't stop at the gas station without someone asking me whether we were going to re-sign Ray," he said. "So now, I can have my life back."

Lewis, who turns 34 in May, presumably won't finish his seven-year contract.

But he had one of his better seasons in recent years after bulking up to 260 pounds (about 15 pounds heavier than he has been playing at in the past). He finished with 117 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions. Lewis also played a full 16-game season for the first time since 2003.

Asked how many years he had left, he said: "I think once you start thinking like that, you're thinking about retirement. I haven't thought about that yet. Not even close to it."

When Lewis decides to end his illustrious career, the Ravens plan to cement his legacy with a statue that could be placed beside the one of John Unitas at M&T; Bank Stadium.


Said Bisciotti: "I think there's enough bronze in this world to get two statues done."

Notes: : L.J. Smith is expected to sign with the Ravens after completing his physical today. The free-agent tight end agreed in principle to a one-year, $1.5 million contract this week. ... Free-agent offensive tackle Orlando Pace met with team officials yesterday, the first visit for Pace, a seven-time Pro Bowl player. ... After being released by the Ravens this week, cornerback Samari Rolle is scheduled to meet with the Jets, who are looking for an experienced third cornerback. ... The Ravens held Lewis' news conference at halftime of the Maryland-California NCAA basketball game. Bisciotti, an avid Terps supporter, stayed the entire time, even though the session spilled into the second half. "Well, now that's the sacrifice that we make," Lewis said.