In determining why the Baltimore Ravens haven’t lost to any of the league’s lesser lights over the past two years, the presence of linebacker Ray Lewis is a good place to start.
Lewis, as referenced Wednesday, has made the Ravens virtually impossible to run against for the Raiders.
As a rookie during the first year of the franchise’s rebirth as the Ravens after leaving Cleveland, Lewis is a rarity in an era of player movement. No contemporary player is as closely identified with the uniform he wears. The Ravens are Lewis, Lewis is the Ravens.
Any damage to his reputation after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice a decade ago when two members of his entourage went on trial (and were acquitted) in the death of two men in Atlanta has long since dissipated.
Nnamdi Asomugha didn’t fully comprehend the scope of Lewis’ reach until he played in the Pro Bowl last year.
“You understand the Pro Bowl _ it’s all of the top guys. You don’t think in terms of a captain on the team,” Asomugha said. `All through the week guys are shooting the bull during practice. Nobody cared about anything. We’re getting ready to play and guys are cracking jokes.
“Ray Lewis calls everyone up, commands a group huddle in the locker room, and gives probably the greatest pregame speech I’ve heard in my life. For the Pro Bowl. Peyton Manning is standing at attention. It doesn’t matter who it is.
“Everyone’s stone-faced, standing up straight. When he finished, everyone was going crazy and excited, and I thought, `He’s got the most respect of anyone in this room.’ ”
With that kind of credibility, it’s no wonder the Ravens rarely slip up against teams with inferior records. When the face of the organization is putting his heart and soul into every practice snap, going on cruise control is not an option.
“When you have a guy like that, you don’t want to let him down,” linebacker Kirk Morrison said. “You see the amount of passion he has, what he puts into it. He’s been doing it for a long time and you develop that respect where you have the Pro Bowls, the accolades. Everyone knows you’ve been there, and you demand it from everybody else. If you’re not playing to the best of your abilities, you’re going to have to deal with him.”
Quarterback Charlie Frye started two games for the Cleveland Browns with Lewis on the other side, and knows he’ll be sore on Monday because that’s simply the way it is against the Ravens.
“There’s a different vibe about him,” Frye said. “Different than anyone else I’ve played against. At the end of the day, you want someone like that on your team.”
Lewis, 34, doesn’t believe he’s lost a thing. He’s watched film of when he was the centerpiece of the 2000 Ravens defense as well as now and told Bay Area reporters by conference call, “I think the biggest difference is you’ll see a much smarter me. As a young man, you’re just running around. When I look at film from years ago I see the same passion, but a lot of the small mistakes I don’t make anymore. When I watch film, I see a much smarter player.”
Morrison sought out Lewis on the field in 2006 following a 28-6 win by the Ravens in Baltimore, and later met up with him at an ESPN event in Los Angeles. He instantly became one of dozens of players who remain in occasional contact with their mentor through phone calls and text messages.
“He embraced me more than I ever would have thought for someone of his status,” Morrison said. “It was, `Hey, Kirk. Take my number. Let’s talk. Let’s talk tomorrow.’ ”
Lewis said he has no idea how many younger players he remains in contact with, while Morrison figures it has to be at least a hundred.
“He’s probably the most respected guy in this league because he reaches out to everybody,” Morrison said. “He’s open to that role.”
Twenty-five players were selected in the NFL draft in 1996 before the Ravens selected Lewis at No. 26. The Raiders actually traded up that year to take tight end Rickey Dudley at No. 9. Dudley was the polar opposite of Lewis, a spectacular physical specimen and an earnest worker whose true passion was for basketball.
Hard to fault the Raiders for that. It’s doubtful that even the Ravens, who secured Jonathan Ogden earlier in that round (giving them two probable Hall of Fame players) had little idea they’d built a successful foundation.
Raiders coach Tom Cable agreed that having Lewis in the locker room and on the field as a leader makes it so the Ravens are almost never surprised.
“Those guys are worth their weight in gold,” Cable said.
— If you’re still holding out hope that Jon Gruden may some day make his way back to Oakland, consider that a club staffer phoned Ricky’s Sports Grill and Lounge and requested that all photos from the Dec. 14 party hosted by Gruden with current employees of the organization be removed from the restaurant’s Web site.
Good to know that as the Raiders move forward to recapture their greatness, they’re focused on the right things.
— The Ravens are preparing for “Raiders tactics” after seeing film of the penalty-fest against Cleveland, which included $40,000 in fines to tight end Tony Stewart, defensive lineman Richard Seymour and cornerback Stanford Routt.