A longtime friend and former teammate of middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders opined that perhaps the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is retiring from football because he feels his teammates aren't matching his commitment to the game.
Sanders didn't say he was speaking with any inside knowledge from Lewis, though.
"I don’t believe it, I really don’t," Sanders said today on NFL Network. "Ray Lewis could have come to this conclusion if his body isn’t responding as it once did. We all know that he’s been hampered with injuries over the last several years, although he feels like his play is still above standard. I believe it is as well. But when you look around the locker room, Ray is a perfectionist. He’s looking for reality, should I stay around? He’s already made his mark in professional sports, he will go down in history as arguably the best linebacker to ever play this game.
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"But when he looks amongst the locker room and doesn’t see the intangibles to win a championship, that will provoke someone to say, 'This is it for me because I can’t continue to put my body through these rigorous training schedules for naught.' That’s probably the conclusion he came to for that reason. I don’t think it has anything to do with his level of play but what’s inside that locker room."
In his remarks today announcing his retirement, Lewis didn't cite that as a reason for his pending retirement after this season.
Although it appears remote that Lewis will pull a Brett Favre and come back or change his mind, Sanders broached the possibility that the defensive icon could have second thoughts.
“Yes, it depends on how close they get," Sanders said. "If you get there to the championship game and you’re right there on the front door, and you realize we could have had this; just one step away, a couple of intangibles inside the locker room, maybe the guys that were injured, [Lardarius] Webb at the cornerback position, a healthy [Terrell] Suggs and a healthy Ray Lewis, a healthy Ed Reed and a formidable offensive coordinator, he could say I could do this again because we’re almost there. But if they’re not close, then I can see Ray Lewis saying this is a wrap, this is it.”
As far as playing with Lewis, Sanders said it was always an experience where Lewis provided motivation in the locker room.
“When I played with the Ravens, as a defensive player and a 37-year old savvy veteran, you didn’t want to let Ray Lewis down, no matter the situation," Sanders said. "I don’t care if it was practice, you didn’t want to let him down. You wanted to win at all costs and that’s the same thing that these guys will respond to Ray Lewis by him saying this is my last go around."
Former NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp also weighed in on Lewis' upcoming retirement.
Like Lewis, Sapp is a fellow University of Miami football alum and he recalled the start of Lewis' career for the Hurricanes.
“You can’t say football without Ray Lewis," Sapp said on NFL Network. "He’s deciding that this will be the last one so we’ve all enjoyed it. I was standing there at the University of Miami the first time he walked in a huddle as a 17-year old kid from Polk County, Lakeland, Florida and stuttered the huddle, if you can believe that. He stuttered it out of his mouth. I was like, ‘What? Ray, if you’re going to stand in front of this huddle, you have to call it.’ He went out and had 20 tackles and an interception at Colorado, and the rest is history.”
Sapp said he's never seen a better middle linebacker than Lewis.
“He provides a comfort that you can’t outrun him, you’re not going over the top of him, you’re not going to go through him," Sapp said. "As a rock in the middle of a defense, there is nothing more sane for a defensive tackle like myself to line up and know he’s behind him. If you’re lucky enough to get past me, he’s right there. OK, now what’s next?"
Sapp said this was a fitting time for Lewis to walk away.
“There comes a time when you’ve nurtured and you’ve raised your young ones, as we like to call them in the NFL, and now it’s time for your young ones to carry you," Sapp said. "That’s what they’re thinking is let’s take our great lion to the throne because he’s taught us the way. He’s shown us how to be professionals on and off the field, how to commit yourself to your career, and more than that be a shining example of how to do it day in and day out.”
Sapp said he expects the Ravens to be inspired by Lewis' announcement heading into Sunday's AFC wild-card playoff game against an Indianapolis Colts squad fired up by the emotional return of coach Chuck Pagano after undergoing chemotherapy to battle leukemia.
“I don’t think it does anything but add to what they’ve already tried to get done, and that’s to win a championship," Sapp said. "When you talk about your captain, your leader, your emotional everything saying this is my last ride, I wouldn’t find a better middle linebacker to take that last ride with. He’s always gotten them up ready to play. Now it’s the last stand and I’d love to be in that bunker with him."