Ray Lewis makes a winning debut on ESPN's 'Sunday NFL Countdown'

I am going to be honest, I did not think Ray Lewis was going to be nearly as good on TV as he was on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown."

Frankly, some of the stuff Lewis said as a player sometimes sounded, well, a little off the wall. Like his comments last week about the power outage in the Super Bowl possibly being intentional.

And I wondered how his incredible visceral intensity as a player would translate to the screen in a medium that favors cool.

But after three hours of watching Lewis and his new TV teammates, I am here to tell you he had an outstanding debut. One week in, he is already better than two-thirds of the ex-NFL-players drawing paychecks as TV analysts.

ESPN has itself a winner -- a big-time winner -- in Lewis. And he's going to be one of the best in the business before long.

You had to admire the physical poise with which Lewis made his onstage entrance Sunday. He had the grace and sense of humor to trust the producers that he wouldn't look silly giving viewers a little of "The Squirrel" dance that he used to make his entrance with at M&T Bank Stadium. He gave just enough to make fans remember the joy of seeing him take the field as a player while remaining in control of his body image as he took the stage for the start of his career as a TV analyst.

Overall, Lewis' greatest contribution to ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" was the genuine sense of energy, enthusiasm and even joy that he brought to the conversation.

Last year, I thought the show felt flat and, frankly, kind of old. But not today. It was jacked up and juiced from beginning to end with energy, information and insights.

Lewis added to those insights with his keen understanding of the game.

For example, in talking about the pounding that the Ravens took Thursday night from the Denver Broncos, he said, "Baltimore will be fine. They're that type of team, alright. Our pedigree has always been that.

"One stumble in the road ain't never stopped nothing ... In the first half the other night, they played checkers. You see? The second half, you was supposed to play chess."

At first I thought, "OK, there's the inscrutable Ray Lewis talking checkers and chess. What the hell does he mean by that, and how many hundreds of thousands of viewers did he just leave scratching their heads?"

But as Lewis went on to explain how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning reads defenses, and how he would move Ravens players out of position to try and confuse Manning with disguised alignments, I thought, "That's exactly what was going on in the second half: Manning started playing chess with the Ravens, and Baltimore had no one to play against him."

That's an astonishing insight. I think someone might have coached Lewis and told him he has to translates those kinds of insights into language that even the least football savvy viewer can understand.

I say that because of Lewis adding the phrase, "You see?" It's like saying, "Do you know what I mean?" Or, "Am I making myself clear?"

And the trick is to make yourself understood to the widest possible audience without losing your unique way of speaking.  That's a challenge. But I think Lewis is well on his way to pulling it off.

Understand, though, that the triumph of Lewis' debut was not all his doing. Time and again, the producers put him in a position to succeed, and his TV teammates were skilled and gracious helping him climb aboard the Sunday morning TV train.

Mike Ditka literally did extend a helping hand.

After Lewis did a bit of his signature dance and walked across the stage to join Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson, Tom Jackson, Chris Berman and Ditka, there was a moment of tension if not awkwardness even though they all gave Lewis a handshake and manly backslap/hug.

Berman, the veteran host, asked Lewis how it felt not to be in uniform on the opening Sunday of the NFL season, and Lewis said "Weird."

"But a good weird," he quickly added.

Maybe it is because he's the former coach who is used to taking charge in such moments, Ditka walked over and grabbed Lewis' wrist and held up the hand with the supersized Ravens Super Bowl ring on it.

Then, Ditka, held his finger with a much smaller Chicago Bears Super Bowl ring alongside it. It was a perfect snapshot of the difference in the rewards players and coaches received in the two different eras of Ditka and Lewis.

Or, maybe, it was just a knock on cheap Bears ownership. But whatever it was, it broke the tension on the set, and everybody relaxed.

Jackson, a former linebacker and the most veteran of the player-analysts on the set, was most gracious. After the remarks Lewis made about checkers and chess, he tried to make sure everyone got what Lewis was saying as he reminded viewers that "no one ever scored 49 points" against the Ravens when Lewis was at linebacker.

Berman, too, was reaching out to Lewis constantly during the three hours, prefacing questions with statements like, "Ray, you know this better than I do, so let me ask you about...."

Some of Lewis' best moments Sunday came in a discussion with Carter and Johnson about former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and the issues of character, criminality and the NFL.

Aaron Wilson, Baltimore Sun Ravens beat writer, talks about that discussion here.

In the end, maybe the highest compliment I can pay Lewis is that he really did seem to make everyone around him on the ESPN set better -- just as he did on the field with the Ravens.

Again, it was definitely a two-way street with the producers and teammates constantly reaching out to him.

But what I saw today was someone successfully navigate a major rite of passage from one profession to another.

And I now have a new place to be on Sunday mornings for my first NFL gameday TV fix.

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