Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn’t like to talk much, unless it’s a special occasion.
One will occur Aug. 4, when middle linebacker Ray Lewis will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (2013) as the only players enshrined primarily as Ravens.
Newsome selected both players in the Ravens’ first draft in 1996. The team has had two owners and three head coaches in its historynd two presidents sincethen, and the only constant has been Newsome, who saw Lewis’ every snap.
Maybe that’s why he gets a little emotional and talks so freely now about the player he chose No. 26 overall in the first round.
“You can’t replace him, you just can’t,” Newsome said. “You couldn’t replace Willie Mays. Certain guys like Bill Russell, they can’t be replaced. We have not been looking for the next Ray Lewis because there will never be another one.”
Newsome is right. In 17 years, Lewis was invited to 13 Pro Bowls, tied for the second most ever by a defensive player. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year twice and led the Ravens in tackles for 14 seasons. In seven games, he had more than 20 tackles.
No linebacker, including Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Willie Lanier, could run sideline to sideline like Lewis.
Is he the best middle linebacker ever?
Newsome, who was inducted as a tight end in 1999, won’t compare Hall of Famers. That would be disrespectful to his peers and the game. But he said Lewis changed the way the position was played.
“It was his ability to cover,” Newsome said. “I don’t think there was a back that we put Ray on that he couldn’t find a way to cover. So he was never a liability in that sense. He had that great ability to change direction and a strong willingness not to ever lose.”
Like most Baltimore fans, Newsome has his favorite Lewis memories. Was it Lewis pile-driving Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair into the turf in a January 2001 playoff game? What about him stealing the ball from running back Eddie George for an interception in the same game?
Or was it the time Lewis rolled Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis backward in 2003, or the crushing block that freed Chris McAlister during a 107-yard return of a missed field-goal attempt in 2002?
Lewis mauled a lot of opposing players, from Bam Morris to Hines Ward, but Newsome prefers Lewis’ performance in Super Bowl XXXV, in which he had five tackles and knocked down four passes as the New York Giants finished with only 152 yards of total offense.
Final score: Ravens 34, Giants 7. Lewis was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“Man, he must have deflected five or six passes, and then there was the tackle he made on Tiki Barber where he broke free and was running down the sideline,” Newsome said. “I mean, that performance was the greatest individual performance I have ever seen from any player on a high school, college or pro level.”
Lewis was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year that season, but he was the NFL’s top performer. He couldn’t be blocked, but more importantly, he took away opponents’ desire to play against him.
During that season, Cincinnati Bengals running back Corey Dillon, playing in Baltimore, refused to go back into the game late in the fourth quarter because he didn’t want to go against Lewis and the Ravens defense.
A day later, Bengals coach Bruce Coslet resigned.
That season was a great comeback for Lewis. In the previous offseason, Lewis, along with two other men, was indicted on murder and aggravated-assault charges after an incident outside an Atlanta nightclub.
Lewis eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with the stabbing deaths, but returned for the 2000 season.
“You have to remember, when he came back, he did the press conference and we had nothing but Baltimore Ravens behind him,” Newsome said. “I will never forget, and this is what he said: ‘It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up.’
“Boy, did he get back up.”
Newsome and Lewis have always had a strong relationship. While Newsome gets the credit for drafting Lewis, he acknowledges that Bill Belichick and Mike Lombardi played major roles in the selection.
Belichick, the current New England Patriots coach, was still the coach of the Cleveland Browns, and Lombardi was in charge of player personnel when the move to Baltimore was announced. They had already done a lot of the legwork on Lewis and had scheduled an interview with him during the scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Newsome was still an assistant coach gradually moving into the front office, but if Belichick had shown Lewis some love, so had Newsome.
“I knew about Ray because Mike Lombardi had put him on a list for us to review at the combine,” Newsome said. “I never will forget we watched the Baylor game, I believe, and Ray made every play. I wasn’t in charge at that time, I just happen to be in on the little circle.”
Newsome hasn’t forgotten his first impression of Lewis.
“He was a Baptist preacher,” Newsome said. “He was very passionate the way he talked about how he played the game, how he prepared.”
Newsome eventually became the Ravens’ top personnel official and later sent linebackers coach Maxie Baughan to Florida to work out Lewis. Scout George Kokinis, now a team personnel assistant, visited Lewis as well.
“George was doing this thing we call the box, which was an agility drill, and George said he was one of the most competitive individuals that he ever had, and George had boxed a whole lot of top athletes over the last three or four years,” Newsome said. “George said every time Ray would ask, ‘Who did this?’ And he would try to beat that number.”
But before he would become a pro starter, Lewis had to replace another No. 52, veteran Pepper Johnson, on the roster. Newsome can’t remember Lewis’ original number.
“I think he was, like, No. 54 or something,” Newsome said, laughing. “In our first minicamp, Pepper was still calling the plays and Ray was a good soldier. He was just playing his role, and then we had to do the cap casualty thing with Pepper and a couple of other players. We did that and [first-year defensive coordinator] Marvin [Lewis] said we’re going to put Ray at middle linebacker and let it go.
“What intrigued Marvin the most was that Ray was a knee bender and had the ability to change directions and make plays other than just relying on instincts. Maxie was OK with it, and what finally got me convinced was when we played that first game — I think it was with the Raiders and he made that interception in the red zone. The guy showed even then that he had the ability to make plays.”
Newsome compares Lewis with basketball star LeBron James and other top playmakers who take over games in critical situations. But Lewis was more than just a playmaker. He is one of the best leaders in NFL history and always had a strong work ethic to match his passion.
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There is something special about his motivational speeches. He’s got a good old-fashioned Baptist preaching rhythm, and even though he can’t walk on water, he makes new and young players on the roster believe they can.
If you don’t talk to him often, it seems phony, but that’s been his style from day one.
“He is consistent with the way he talks, and he is like that in everything,” Newsome said. “Players are aware of his passion; they know he is the ultimate competitor.”
Two of Lewis’ best compliments have come from two former competitors. After the Ravens-Titans playoff game in 2000 in which George and Lewis faced off like gladiators, George walked into the Ravens locker room and gave Lewis a handshake and big hug.
When the Ravens beat Denver in a January 2013 playoff game, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning visited Lewis afterward in the locker room with his two kids.
“It’s the ultimate respect among competitors,” Newsome said. “I’ve seen that in other corners. You know they always talk about when Coach Bryant [former Alabama coach Bear Bryant] went into John McKay’s locker room after USC beat Alabama in 1970. I saw that when we beat Denver and Peyton brought his two kids over.
“That’s competitive respect from one great player to another. With Ray, I think he could will himself into greatness. I think he was afraid of being complacent. There are just certain guys who look forward to being in that spotlight so they can succeed, and he always succeeded. That was Ray Lewis.”