R. Lewis regains his smile and swagger

Ray Lewis has broken his stony silence, ended his griping discontent and overcame the pain of a scalpel that repaired his damaged leg. The Baltimore Ravens' former All-Pro middle linebacker appears to have dramatically transformed his disposition, smiling his way through blitzes and even interviews he was once loath to grant.

The intimidating defender's glower has disappeared for now, and perhaps it will stay away longer or not return at all if the football team becomes a Super Bowl contender again and he regains his old NFL Defensive Player of the Year form.

Following a controversial offseason where he criticized the team's defensive scheme and personnel, offered a much-debated and seemingly cryptic no comment when asked about coach Brian Billick and privately complained about his contract, Lewis has shifted from a symbol of divisiveness to practically the new president of the Ravens' fan club.

"Sometimes, things get misconstrued," Lewis said. "A lot of times people might take things personally because that's the way you might be feeling. If you're not strong enough to have your own opinion, that can sometimes be sad.

"The bottom line is that I'm back here ready to play football, ready to deal with you guys, have a great season and we'll see where we go from here."

What changed about Lewis, and the Ravens?

For starters, the team traded for former Tennessee Titans All-Pro quarterback Steve McNair. He's a proven quarterback capable of leading a team to a Super Bowl if he's healthy and has a strong supporting cast.

That's a major change for the Ravens after years of ineptitude under center.

"Things couldn't get more exciting in Baltimore," Lewis said. "Because we're very unpredictable now. A lot of people have played us one way for a long time. You know, they can run [but not pass], whatever, but I don't believe you can do that anymore.

"In my heart of hearts, I don't think there's a team that can sit there and beat us for 60 minutes."

Plus, the team drafted 6-foot-4, 340-pound All-American defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in the first round to shield Lewis from blocks.

At age 31, perhaps Lewis has come to grips that after seeking a trade and not discovering a rich market for his services that the Ravens are the right team for him to end his career with after signing a landmark $50 million contract in 2002.

The equation of those factors and Lewis' renewed health seems to have injected new enthusiasm in him.
"It's the Ray Lewis I know and love," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's playing great, looks fantastic. We know what he brings to the table and what he means to this football team."

Lewis has been selected to seven Pro Bowls and led the NFL in tackles four times. Twice, he's been named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And he was named the Most Valuable Player in the Ravens' Super Bowl victory in 2001.

However, he has only won one playoff game since that game. The Ravens have been absent from the postseason for two consecutive seasons and are coming off a 6-10 campaign where Lewis missed the final 10 games with a torn hamstring.

Now, he has sights set on a trip to Miami to play in the upcoming Super Bowl.

"When I made phone calls to my teammates, I said, ‘Look, man, that's all that's on my mind,'" Lewis said. "The Super Bowl ends in Miami and if you're not playing in that game, ask yourself a question: Did you have a good season?

"Individually, people can go to Pro Bowls. That's cute. But why are we out here, why are we willing to go through this sacrifice? You can easily collect your check and do something else. The only passion I have is to win. Bottom line."

Lewis' firm message wasn't out of step with his teammates who share his frustration over the team's recent underachieving ways.

"He called me up a couple times," nose guard Kelly Gregg said. "We're all on the same page, just trying to win. When we lose, everything stinks. Even the beer doesn't taste good."

Lewis' leg is no longer an issue after a grueling offseason regimen. He hasn't missed a single drill and looks quick and fast.

"I feel real good," Lewis said. "I didn't feel any tweaks. I can burst. I can run. God has been good. My leg has been healing perfectly. It gave the other parts of my body a lot of time to rest.

"I never came into this business to play 11 years and say I wasn't going to get hurt. I only play it one way: with reckless abandon."

Lewis has resembled his usual hyperkinetic self, running around with the enthusiasm of a teenager, sprinting from drill to drill with superb mobility and exhorting teammates.

His entire persona is different than his moody attitude that typified last season.

"Sometimes when you get injured, it allows your mind to rest and get better," linebacker Bart Scott said. "I see that fire in his eye, to prove all the skeptics wrong and come back and be the Ray Lewis that he's always been.

"Great players don't lose their swagger. That's part of who they are, and that's part of his personality. That doesn't change. Ever."

Despite Lewis' changed attitude, the question remains: How will he handle the situation when adversity arises?

What if McNair gets hurt and the offense goes south, or if Lewis is unable to recapture his past dominance and reputation as one of the most feared players in the game?

The linebacker could have easily been referring to himself when he wondered aloud: "The question is, can we do it together? Can we weather the storm of whatever comes up."

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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