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The Baltimore Ravens are losing more than leadership after the season with the retirement of Ray Lewis.
They are losing one of the five best defensive players I have had the fortune to cover. As you might know, I started covering the NFL in 1972. Because of that, I was able to catch the end of Dick Butkus' career. He retired in 1973, and I marveled at how he roamed the field and made violent tackles.
Every time I watched Lewis, he reminded me of Butkus. Because Lewis was faster, maybe he should be ranked ahead of Butkus among the greatest defensive players ever, but out of respect to NFL history, I rank Butkus ahead of Lewis. Remember, I still go with Jim Brown as the best pure NFL football player I've ever seen.
So here are my top five defensive players:
1. Lawrence Taylor: He changed the game. He was so good at rushing the quarterback, Bill Parcells put him as a 3-4 linebacker and just let him rush. When you watch games, most of the time your eyes angle toward the quarterback. During the L.T. days, you ended up watching him. He was that good.
2. Reggie White: He was unblockable. White is considered the greatest unrestricted free agent in NFL history. Once he went to Green Bay, the Packers returned to their status as a legacy franchise. I can't tell you how many times I'd see White get angry at some cheap-shot block and then decide to line up in front of offender and embarrass him with a "hump" move.
3. "Mean" Joe Greene: Chuck Noll built perhaps the greatest football dynasty around Mean Joe. As a rookie, Greene was a little like Ndamukong Suh. Not only was he was difficult to block, he also lived up to his nickname. Veterans told him he didn't have to take the cheap shots, so Greene dominated cleanly and professionally.
4. Dick Butkus: NFL Films and the Sabol family captured his greatest on tape every week. Growing up, I looked forward to NFL Films' weekly highlights show in order to see the best of Butkus. Had he played now, he would be on the "SportsCenter" highlights every Sunday night.
5. Ray Lewis: I still remember a Ravens training camp at which I had to ask Lewis about his tackling style. Lewis always seemed to explode as he neared a ball carrier. I asked him whether my observation was valid.
Lewis smiled and noted that he was a wrestler in high school and much of that explosion came from his wrestling techniques. Could you imagine going against Lewis on a wrestling mat?
The 2000 Ravens defense was the third-best I've seen, ranking behind the 1970s Steelers' Steel Curtain and the 1985 Chicago Bears, and Lewis was the leader. What was amazing is how his presence has been able to help Baltimore maintain its defensive toughness for so long.
Lewis was Butkus-tough, but he was the perfect middle linebacker because of his range. When the Ravens eventually switched to a 3-4 defense, Lewis told me why their 3-4 was so different. Normally, 3-4 defensive coaches like bigger players. They like 260-pound outside linebackers who are tall. They like stout inside linebackers to stuff and run and ward off blockers.
The Ravens' 3-4 was always different because Lewis could run and tackle from sideline to sideline. He made sure the rest of the starting linebacker corps could also run, which allowed them to use lighter, more agile defenders.
One of the highlights of my tour of training camps this year was seeing Lewis at his lightest. To regain some of his speed and quickness, Lewis spent the offseason riding a bike. He rode as much as 80 miles a day.
It allowed him to come to camp more than 20 pounds lighter than the previous season.
Lewis will be missed next season, but I will be looking forward to the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote for him in five years. He will be inducted on the first ballot. He's earned it.