After playing 16 NFL seasons, getting invited to 13 Pro Bowls and establishing himself as a future Hall of Famer and one of the most feared middle linebackers in league history, Ray Lewis returned home this offseason and decided change was in order.
The decision wasn't motivated by any particular aspect of his play during the 2011-12 campaign as Lewis, despite missing four games with a toe injury, still led the Ravens in tackles and played at a high level for much of the Ravens' 13-5 season. It also wasn't prompted by some of the criticism that he heard at times last year in regards to his coverage of running backs and tight ends.
Approaching his 37th birthday, Lewis simply looked at the landscape of the NFL and decided that he needed to adjust to how the game was being played.
"My mentality was change with the game," Lewis said yesterday after the first day of the Ravens' three-day mandatory mini-camp. "There are no more true, true, true, physical, physical fullbacks that are going to come at me and sledgehammer all day. So, just adjust to the game, and as you see guys get older in their careers, you see a lot of people don't do that. And that was my thing this year. It was like, 'All right, the game is changing like that. Everybody wants to go with all these little five-wides and all this different stuff.' Just change with the game, and that was kind of my thought process. … If you've been in the game so long, you just learn to adjust to it."
Lewis' offseason workout routines are the stuff of legends. But in order to improve his quickness and movement, qualities that will allow him to better adapt to the new pass-happy NFL and match up with the smaller and quicker tight ends, Lewis decided to combine a "bunch of everything" that he has done in past offseasons.
That meant a lot of swimming and a lot of bike riding. Lewis did a radio interview recently that was barely audible because he was in the middle of a long bike ride and the wind was obscuring his voice.
"Just kind of refurbishing everything … just putting a lot of different programs together" was how Lewis described this offseason's workout regime.
The result was a player that looked far leaner than he did last season when his weight was listed 250 in the Ravens' game books. Lewis declined to say how much weight that he lost, claiming that is "between me and me."
"I think it becomes kind of easy when you go through the things that I went through in my regiment as far as training and then as far as eating and everything. So, it just naturally comes off, and as hard as you go with it, it's just going to naturally take care of itself, and that's pretty much … been the course for me," Lewis said. "Just coming back and just saying, 'What's the next step? What's the next thought process for me? What do I want to do when I come back?' And now, any time you come back in your 17th year, you kind of want to come back with a different mentality and different thinking."
Lewis made 94 tackles last season to go along with two sacks, one interception, seven passes defended and two forced fumbles for a defense that finished third overall in the NFL, including second against the pass and first in the red zone. But the pressure will be on the middle linebacker even more in 2012 with linebacker and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs expected to miss most – if not all of – the upcoming season.
"I don't think it's hard because I saw [owner Steve Bisciotti] and [head coach John Harbaugh]. The first thing I said was 'Before any great blessing, you're going to go through a storm.' That's just life," Lewis said. "Every team is going to go through it, whether you go through it sooner or later. You look at the Super Bowl champs last year, the Giants, all the damages came at the beginning of the year, but everybody got healthy at the end of the year. So, every team is going to go through that.
"Now we have an opportunity for a lot of young guys to step up; for a Paul Kruger to step up, for a young [Courtney] Upshaw to come in there and do his thing, for Sergio Kindle to come in and actually get some playing time. So, we have a good rotation to hold things down. If Suggs can make it back, hey, that's a bonus for us, because now, you get a fresher Terrell Suggs. But if you can't get him back, then what do you do? And that's why I think it's kind of a blessing I disguise, because we get a lot of young guys who get work in."
Upshaw, the Ravens' first pick in the 2012 Draft, is one of those guys and he's already made an impression on Lewis.
"I just love his motor," Lewis said. "He's a kid that just loves football. Trust me, forget the mental errors, because that's just life. I don't care what year you're in, you're going to make mental errors, but the way he approaches the game, his speed toward the game, and the way he flies around to the football, you really appreciate watching somebody like that."