Analysis: Ray Lewis Tied with Lawrence Taylor as Best Linebacker in NFL History

Analysis: Ray Lewis Tied with Lawrence Taylor as Best Linebacker in NFL History

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has decided this will be his last season: his retirement was reported on Wednesday on the team’s Twitter page. Lewis, who had surgery in October and said that when he was out of football and spending time with his kids he realized he wanted to retire, is expected to play in the Ravens this Sunday in Baltimore against the Indianapolis Colts.

Lewis has had a legendary professional career, leading his team to victory in Super Bowl XXXV while he was named the game’s MVP. He appeared 13 times in the Pro Bowl and twice won the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.

So how good was he? Where does he rank among the greatest linebackers in NFL history? 

It is difficult to rank players from different eras in any sport; rules change, equipment gets more sophisticated both on and off the field, and the expanding number of teams in many sports means a certain dilution of talent.

With that in mind, there are a few others who reached legendary status like Lewis, starting with Sam Huff with the New York Giants in the 1950’s to Ray Nitschke of the 1960’s Green Bay Packers, to Dick Butkus of the 1960-70’s Chicago Bears.  All were fierce, with Butkus possibly the toughest player ever to lace his cleats and most probably the best of them, but they didn’t have the speed of later breeds like Jack Lambert of the Pittsburg Steelers in the 1970’s and Mike Singletary of the Bears in the 1980’s. 

One personal memory: Singletary had an astonishing clutch moment in the 1985 championship season. In a crucial late-game third-down play in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Rams, Eric Dickerson, the great running back, needed five yards to make the first down, ran for four and a half unimpeded, then crashed squarely into Singletary. The impact was tremendous. Dickerson was powerful and much taller, but when they hit there was a moment when they were both completely upright before Singletary wound up throwing Dickerson down just shy of the first down. It was the most perfect technique I have ever seen.

Concurrent with Singletary’s career was the other supreme linebacker of the day, Lawrence Taylor, whose speed and power were simply fearsome. He was followed years later by Junior Seau, (12 straight years in the Pro Bowl) and later, Lewis.

There is surely an argument to be made for Lewis being the best, but it is hard to rate him ahead of Taylor, so I would rank them in a tie for first. But (with the exception of Singletary, who is a minister and would, I hope, forgive me) don’t tell any other linebackers that I placed them after Lewis and Taylor!