Right Field

Ray Lewis’s Place in the Defensive Football Pantheon

Now that Ray Lewis has delivered his final inspirational rant and done his last squirrel dance, it’s time for armchair scribes like me to assess the Ravens legend’s place in history. In doing a quick postmortem on Lewis’s Hall of Fame career, I’m going to set aside the double murder and deer-antler spray and focus on his accomplishments and accolades, which are legion: ten All-Pro selections, two NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, 227 starts, sole membership in history’s 40-sack–30-inteception club. I’m one of those people who will actually cop to being a Lewis fan, so don’t take this as garden-variety anti-Ray bias, but I’m not ready to anoint him history’s greatest defender. Lewis is the perfect backer for the soundbite era, but in terms of the linebacking Mt. Olympus, he’s merely one of many immortals.

For all of his 17 seasons, he’s been standing and woofing on the shoulders of giants. In the 1960s, Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke redefined middle-linebacker play with their relentlessness and unbridled aggression. Nitschke was the heart and soul of five NFL championship defenses for the Packers and, like Lewis, was a two-time Super Bowl winner. Butkus merely set the standard by which all backers are measured, earning All-Pro honors six times.

In 1970, Butkus had possibly the greatest season any linebacker has ever enjoyed: 132 tackles, 84 assists, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. Those 216 combined stops are 33 more than Lewis’s career-best 183. The Steelers’ Jack Lambert took up the mantle in the 1970s, averaging 146 tackles per season through his first ten seasons and greeting each ball carrier with the gentle temperament of a rabid honey badger. With his fearsome gap-toothed scowl, Lambert embodied the blue-collar attitude of the Steel Curtain, perhaps history’s greatest defense.

The 1980s brought the heir to Butkus’s throne in fellow Bear Mike Singletary, the man in the middle of the angry, intimidating Chicago defense. Scouring the field with the scariest eyes in football history, Samurai Mike was a ten-time Pro Bowler and, like Lewis, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. And I haven’t even mentioned the outside backers. Lawrence Taylor single-handedly revolutionized the sport; Jack Ham had 53 career takeaways to Lewis’s 50; and Derrick Thomas was a quarterback-terrorizing machine during his Hall of Fame career.

One final factoid should take Lewis down a peg: In 14 seasons as a starter, linebacker London Fletcher has averaged more tackles, sacks, and forced fumbles per season than Ray-Ray, but he’s done so quietly and professionally; as a result, nobody’s nominating Fletcher for GOAT. Lewis is a legend, but let’s set aside his peculiar genius for self-promotion and stipulate that he’s got plenty of company in the defensive football pantheon

— Rob Doster is senior editor for Athlon Sports.

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