OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- With Ray Lewis out for the season with torn triceps muscle in his right arm, the biggest question now is whether this marks the end of a Hall of Fame career.
No one knows what Lewis is thinking at this point, but don't expect him to announce his retirement anytime soon. Even if Lewis was thinking of hanging it up this season, the injury shelved those plans.
Lewis, 37, is the type of leader and player who will want to leave the game on his own terms. He won't be forced out by an injury, a coach or critics. If you think this is the end of Lewis' career, you haven't been paying attention to the 17 years he's been in the league. This is a linebacker who has built his reputation on taking away the wills of running backs. It will not sit well with Lewis that his final NFL game was spent as a spectator while his defense was trying to stop the Cowboys from a winning drive. As Lewis stood there wearing his shoulder pads and standing as close as he could to the field of play, it was not a picture of a player who was ready to say goodbye to the game.
What fuels Lewis is the desire to win another championship. His goal has always been to announce his retirement as the best player to have ever suited up for this game. He has the multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections to back that up. The only part of this game that has eluded Lewis is a second Super Bowl championship. That's why it will be tough for Lewis to sit out the rest of this season with the Ravens at 5-1 and primed for another playoff run. That's why Lewis will return in 2013.
"I don't know when it will all be over for me," Lewis said before the 2011 season. "People want to use my age against me. They say I'm too old. People fear getting old. I don't fear that because now I have wisdom and a tough body to go with that wisdom."
Based on what he has done for the Ravens and the game, Lewis has earned the right to make the decision on when he will play his last snap. Lewis is one of six players to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award multiple times since it was first awarded in 1971. He's been selected for 12 Pro Bowls, fourth most in NFL history and two behind offensive lineman Bruce Matthews' record of 14. His 50 career takeaways rank second most by a linebacker in NFL history, according to Elias Sports Bureau (Jack Ham had 53).
Lewis is under contract through the 2015 season, and one former teammate told me that he wouldn't be surprised to see Lewis play to the end of it.
"The Ray Lewis i know will not end his career off this injury. He's conquered much more than this. He will determine when its over not a injury," Lewis' close friend Deion Sanders wrote on Twitter.
Whether Lewis wants to come back is up to him. The injury is not a career-threatening one, according to ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell. She said it takes at least four months for an injury of this nature to heal. So, Lewis would be fully healed by the start of training camp.
"It can be repaired," Bell said. "He can come back strong. He can play the position again."
How effective Lewis is at playing the position has been scrutinized this season. He lost an estimated 20 to 30 pounds before the season in order to increase his speed. But Lewis had trouble getting off blocks and making plays in space, one of the reasons the usually dominant Ravens defense dropped to No. 26 overall.
The numbers, though, show that Lewis was still making an impact. He led the Ravens this year with 57 tackles, which ranked fourth in the NFL after six weeks.
Lewis is the Iron Man of NFL linebackers. Mike Singletary retired after 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears, before his play declined. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Jack Lambert walked away after 11 years because of a severe toe injury. And the Bears' Dick Butkus stopped after nine seasons because of knee injuries. Lewis is approaching two decades in a league where 300-pound linemen are coming at him every time the ball is snapped. The reason for his longevity is his work ethic, which will be a factor in Lewis making a fast recovery from the triceps injury.
What hasn't changed with Lewis over the years is his ability to inspire teams and players. He spoke to college teams across the country this offseason, and two of them (Stanford in the men's basketball NIT and Loyola in the men's lacrosse NCAA tournament) won championships after his talk. He is considered the "godfather" of the NFL because he talks to hundreds of players on a daily basis, which is why he is one of the most respected players to ever play this game. Even his biggest rivals offered support Monday.
"Just heard on ESPN that ray lewis is out 4 the yr. hate hearing that because hes 1 of the NFL's true legends. wishing him a full recovery," Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley posted on Twitter.
While Lewis isn't the same dominant player from a decade ago and they will miss cornerback Lardarius Webb (torn ACL) more on the field, the Ravens still need Lewis to come back. Baltimore can replace Lewis in the starting lineup with Dannell Ellerbe, but the team can't fill the void of Lewis. No one can think about the Ravens without picturing Lewis. He is the longest-tenured Raven on the roster by six seasons (safety Ed Reed is second). The Ravens selected Lewis in the 1996 draft before they selected their team colors.
Lewis remains the unquestioned leader of the Ravens locker room. When Baltimore lost last season's AFC Championship Game in heartbreaking fashion, the players said they left with the words spoken by Lewis after the game: "This year, we did what we were supposed to do, we fought as a team. ... There will be one Super Bowl champ crowned at the end of this year, that's it. So the way we feel, somebody gonna feel like that tomorrow, and somebody gonna feel like that in a week. That's a fact. And the fact is, we gotta come back and go to work to make sure we finish it next time. That's all we gotta do."
And that's why Lewis will be coming back in 2013.