NEW ORLEANS -- For all the hoopla surrounding the final season of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, his last game really wasn't about him. It was about Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who proved once again that he has finally grown up. It was about the ability of receiver/returner Jacoby Jones to produce big plays at the most critical of moments. It also was about a group of lesser-known players who did whatever was necessary to secure the second Super Bowl win in this franchise's history. In other words, Lewis was really just along for the ride.
It may sound like blasphemy to say that after Baltimore's 34-31 victory over San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII, but it's true. The Ravens are champions today because they were a complete team, not merely a cast of characters lucky enough to be led by one of the greatest players in NFL history. Lewis certainly gave them ample inspiration by announcing his retirement before the playoffs began. What his teammates gave him in return was the kind of effort that will linger in the minds of Ravens fans forever.
Even Lewis acknowledged as much when he addressed the media in his postgame news conference. "We went through a lot of peaks and valleys this season," Lewis said after finishing the game with seven tackles. "And we heard it all. They said we couldn't beat Denver. They said we couldn't beat New England. They said we couldn't beat San Francisco. We overcame it all, and we showed that what wins is chemistry."
The beauty of Lewis' celebrating the accomplishments of his teammates -- something that he has done repeatedly throughout the postseason despite what some saw as shameless self-promotion -- is that it speaks to his own self-awareness. This wasn't the Ray Lewis who's earned 12 Pro Bowl nominations and two league defensive player of the year awards during his Hall of Fame career. This was a past-his-prime superstar doing everything he could to leave on top. This was a proud team captain praying for the same farewell that only a few other legends -- namely John Elway, Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan -- had enjoyed.
It didn't take long on Sunday to see that Lewis was overmatched. 49ers tight end Vernon Davis ran by him with ease. The tackles he did make were often downfield and lacking any impact. It was apparent from the start that the 49ers were out to attack the most accomplished member of the Ravens. It was just as obvious that Lewis' main contribution to this team would be keeping his teammates focused.
Lewis talked about rubbing Jones' chest before the returner erupted for a postseason-record 108-yard kick return for a touchdown to start the second half. He raved about his relentless faith in Flacco and the conversations his teammates had when they needed a last-minute goal-line stand to thwart a team that had rallied from a 28-6 deficit. "There was no panic in us," Lewis said. "We talked about that when we were on the goal line. We said that if we stopped them there, they don't get in. That was the most amazing goal-line stand that I've ever been a part of."
It won't be remembered much for anything Lewis did. It was cornerback Jimmy Smith who deflected one pass in that situation and successfully covered 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree on the fourth-down attempt. It was another cornerback, Corey Graham, who came up huge on a second-down pass to Crabtree while linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive end DeAngelo Tyson stopped running back LaMichael James on what could've been the game-winning touchdown run. Lewis did his job on those plays. He just didn't do anything memorable.
That's the way this postseason has gone. We've celebrated all of Lewis' playoff tackles -- he had 44 entering the Super Bowl, more than any other defender in the league -- but these weren't the kinds of stops on which he'd built his legacy. Most had come at least 5 or 6 yards downfield. Seldom did it seem as if opposing ball carriers were walking away with the frustrated feeling Lewis often engendered.
If anything, this was a nice element in the final narrative of Lewis' NFL career. His fans wanted to believe he was leaving on top while he was still playing his best, a hard trap to escape. Lewis had been so phenomenal and charismatic that they did not want to think of him as a lesser player on football's biggest stage. They needed to see him as what he has been throughout most of his career: a dominant game-changer who could lift an entire team with his mere presence.
The Ray Lewis who joyfully jogged off the Superdome field Sunday night was far from that talent. He was much closer to what Bettis was for the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers during their Super Bowl. Bettis wasn't breaking huge runs or devastating defenders who struggled to bring him down during his final games. He was motivating his teammates by reminding them of how much he'd put into his own career … and how much he wanted to share a championship with them.
Lewis wanted nothing more than to see his fellow Ravens feel the same exuberance he'd enjoyed when he led Baltimore to a victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. He knew what it took to win a championship, and he understood how hard it was to get another. Lewis said the topic came up during the team's sermon on Sunday morning. The pastor spoke of the need to "finish the race," and the Ravens embraced that theme most when they watched the 49ers storm back to nearly steal their glory.
Had this been six or seven years ago, Lewis would've been the man at the center of Baltimore's victory. Instead, this game will best be remembered for all the plays that Flacco made with his arm, the acrobatic catches of Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin and the aggressive game plan of offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. The Ravens have long been known for their defensive dominance, but this game reinforced the fact that they will win with offense going forward. Lewis, as much as anybody in that locker room, realizes that's the future of this team.
That's why his most important contributions throughout this entire postseason had nothing to do with his ability. It had more to do with the very things that truly made him great: his heart, his passion and his resilience. Lewis made his teammates believe in the power of all those qualities throughout a rocky season, and a 17-year career. In return, they gave him the kind of retirement gift that he will cherish for the rest of his life.