Today is arguably the most important day in the entirety of Ray Lewis’ career. That’s saying a lot for a guy who was a first-round selection, has been to more than a dozen pro bowls, and won two Superbowls; but there is no bigger honor in the NFL than being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Just over 300 players in the history of the league have reached the highest level of achievement in football, and Ray Lewis passed his test with flying colors. He spent his full 17-year career with the team, creating countless memories along the way. He embodies the principle of playing like a Raven, and remains the face of the franchise to this day.
But what if he never played here? The question in itself is taboo, but what if Ray Lewis never suited up as a Raven? Believe it or not, that nightmarish hypothetical was nearly a reality.
Picture this: it’s the 1996 NFL draft and the Detroit Lions are on the clock with the 17th overall pick. They’ve narrowed the choice down to their top two linebackers, Reggie Brown and Ray Lewis. In the real world, Detroit went with Brown of course, but let’s just say either someone picked Brown ahead of them or they decided to outright choose Lewis ahead of him. Now #52 is wearing Blue and Silver and teams up with Barry Sanders to help turn the perpetually struggling Lions around.
In their inaugural season, Baltimore didn’t have a ton of strengths on the roster, they also didn’t even have a name or a color scheme at this point. It’d be impossible to pinpoint exactly who they would’ve taken instead. The most logical players that come to mind are Reggie Brown, who I talked about above, or Leeland McElroy, a running back out of Texas A&M. Multiple people from the front office at the time, including Ozzie Newsome himself, have told the story of how the Ravens almost selected running back Lawrence Phillips over Jonathan Ogden with their first pick. RB was a big need for the team as their starter at the time, Earnest Byer, was 34 years old and nearing the end of his career. Ultimately, Newsome saw too many red flags within the personality of Phillips and made the huge, unpopular (at the time) decision to take Ogden instead. So with the need at RB still lingering and Lewis off the board in this hypothetical, McElroy starts to look awfully enticing.
McElroy was coming off of a stand out college season two years prior, which saw him earn a consensus all-pro nod and Heisman talks. He ultimately didn’t win the Heisman trophy, but still put first-round level talent on tape. Though he missed time with injuries the following year, he still put together over 110 yards per game and solidified himself as the 2nd-best RB in the draft. In the real world the Cardinals selected him with the 32nd overall pick, so it’s far from a stretch to conceive that the Ravens could have taken him just 6 picks earlier at 26.
McElroy would go on to have an extremely disappointing career. His best stat line ever was his first week of action with 63 yards on 17 carries, followed up by an absolutely atrocious 3-week stretch that totaled 18 carries for 11 yards. He was benched and regulated to kick returns. His second year started a little better with 281 yards and 2 TDs in his first 5 games, but fizzled out immediately after that. He finished his career with only 729 yards and never played a regular season game after 1997.
It’s impossible to say he’d have the same career if he were on a different team, but it’s equally impossible to predict the opposite of that. Though the team had Orlando Brown Sr. and future-HOF tackle Jonathan Odgen on the team, the line was far from a world beater, and the team in general wasn’t very good. It’d be hard to argue that being in Baltimore would be a much better situation for McElroy. Besides, in a best-case scenario he’d perform “good enough” and we’d miss out on drafting Jamal Lewis, which is a whole different story.
If not McElroy, its possible the Ravens liked Reggie Brown just as much as Ray Lewis, and they’d pounce on the chance to take him. Much like McElroy, Brown lasted only 2 seasons in the league as well, but for a much different reason. Brown wasn’t a bad player, and actually flashed some play-making ability with 2 interceptions returned for TDs in 1997, but his career ended swiftly and horrifically with a severe injury. Brown suffered a spinal contusion that paralyzed him on the field. He laid motionless on the field for over 17 minutes, and it took cpr and emergency surgery to save his life and the movement in his legs. He’s mobile now, so the story has a moderately happy ending, but at the time it was a terrifying moment for him and everyone in his life.
Again, you can’t say whether or not the same would have happened if he was on a different team. You can’t even say it’d happened the same if he initiated the tackle 6 inches to his left, but it happened how it did and unfortunately, there’s no other way to assess the career of Reggie Brown. Realistically, you could go on forever with the hypothetical, “What if we drafted this guy, what if we got that guy” but the same point would always stand: no matter who we would have selected, they wouldn’t have been as talented or as impactful as Ray Lewis was.
And all of that is just about his play on the field. You can’t even quantify what he meant in the locker room. Ray Lewis may have been the most passionate player to ever put the uniform on, and his leadership was second to none. When we’d have a bad half defensively, you’d never fail to see Ray on the sideline hyping the guys up to turn things around, and 9 times out of 10 his speeches got the job done. Sure he could get a bit long-winded and always sounds like he’s delivering a slam poetry line, but he truly loved the game and his teammates, and everyone knew he was sincere.
Having a guy with his work ethic and love of the team was infectious, he made others around him play better. It’s a trait you either have or you don’t, and there’s no way to replicate it no matter how hard you try. If we didn’t sign Ray Lewis it wouldn’t have mattered who else was on the field instead, the entire history of the team would be different and we’d be remembering our entire lives as fans differently. The iconic hits and plays against guys like Eddie George, Jerome Bettis, Dustin Keller, and Darren Sproles wouldn’t have happened, but more importantly, the entire culture of the team would be different.
I can’t say definitively that we wouldn’t have won our 2 superbowls without him, or that we wouldn’t be a defense-oriented team to this day without his influence. What I can say, without a doubt, is that throughout this week you’ve probably seen and heard countless stories and memories about how great Ray Lewis was. You’ve heard about his character and how he inspired others to be their best constantly, and you’ll continue to hear more throughout this weekend. Those stories from the people who know him personally speak even louder than the insane numbers the 10 time (!) all pro put up on the field. There will never be another Ray Lewis, and we’re lucky to call him ours.