Bruce Arians put it best upon Chuck Pagano’s return from his three-month battle with leukemia: give a professional athlete something to play for other than the paycheck and big things can happen.
With one announcement, it has happened for the Baltimore Ravens, and the Colts’ motivational and intangible advantage in Sunday’s wild-card playoff game may well have been erased.
Ray Lewis’ decision to announce his retirement after these playoff conclude was well-timed for the Ravens. A team that appeared to be drifting through the latter stages of the season now has a sharp, singular focus – to make Lewis’ “last ride,” as he put it, last as long as possible.
“He’s done great things,” said Colts tackle Winston Justice. “Him coming out of that tunnel is like a great show. I think his teammates are really going to play for him and we have to get ready for that, too. He’s a force, and he has been for a long time.”
The upcoming game will be Lewis’ first since Oct. 14, when he was thought to be lost for the season with a triceps injury. It also will be his last in Baltimore, adding energy to a crowd already renowned for its ability to rattle opponents – particularly those that visit from their once-beloved, now-reviled Colts.
Pagano, of course, knows Lewis well from his days coaching the Ravens’ defense. He knows well what to expect from the 17-year veteran destined for Canton.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll introduce the defense and he’ll be the last one out and he’ll ignite and incite a riot, so to speak, and there’ll be a ton of energy on that football team, on that sideline and in that stadium,” Pagano said. “He’s their leader and any time you get your leader back it’s an added spark.”
The whole Indy-Baltimore thing used to be a big deal but really isn’t anymore. The generation of fans that watched the Mayflower vans move the Colts in 1983 are still angry and bitter, of course, but most of the players on both teams weren’t even born when that happened.
The Lewis announcement, however, could prove to be the blade that sharpens the Ravens’ dulled edge. He is not only revered in Baltimore but respected throughout the league.
“He’s meant a lot just for the league in general but for defensive guys especially,” said Dwight Freeney. “This is a league where the most focus goes on offense – the quarterback, receivers, running back, all the high-profile positions. Very few times do you see a defensive guy get highlighted on a commercial or this, that and the other. You see Ray on there and it’s kind of like ‘he’s one of us,’ even though he’s on the other team.
“The things he’s done for the game and just how he motivates guys, I’ve been around him a few times in the Pro Bowl over the years and it really is amazing how passionate he is – even in the Pro Bowl game. I’m like, ‘all right, ready to go on the field,’ and he’s like all suited up, got the great speech ready … there’s only one Ray.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a very emotional game for them, which it should be. He’s meant a lot to that organization and that city.”
At age 37, Lewis isn’t the player he once was. But his retirement announcement expands his presence for this game to mythic proportions.
“I have the utmost respect for Ray Lewis,” said Vontae Davis. “It seems crazy because he’s a guy you think can play forever. For him to say this might be his last year, that’s shocking to me.”
This is not only the last ride for Lewis, but very likely for a legendary Ravens defense he anchored for years. This bunch is getting older, more beat up, less intimidating.
If this is their last postseason run together, Lewis has given them the purpose to make it last.