Bisciotti hopes Lewis gives Ravens a discount

OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti envisions a future dinner with star middle linebacker Ray Lewis to celebrate a new contract, expressing hope Wednesday of striking a long-term deal with the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year while downplaying the prospects of using the restrictive franchise tag to prevent him from becoming a free agent.

A 10-time Pro Bowl selection regarded as one of the most intimidating tacklers in the league, Lewis is slated to become an unrestricted free agent next month for the first time in his 13-year tenure in Baltimore. Lewis turns 34 in May, and his seven-year, $50 million contract that paid him a $6.5 million base salary this past season has expired.

"I've been hopeful forever that we're going to work a deal," Bisciotti said Wednesday at the Ravens' training complex. "I don't think that other people are going to value Ray Lewis higher than20we do. We know what he brings to the table. He's showing at 33 that he's capable of playing like a 28-year-old. So, I've got my wife on a budget already to try and save some money so we can sign him."

Lewis led the Ravens in tackles again this season, registering 160 stops, three interceptions and 3 1/2 sacks as Baltimore rebounded from a 5-11 season to advance to the AFC title game before losing 23-14 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bisciotti hasn't made it a secret that he's friends with Lewis, who has been the owner's guest at several University of Maryland basketball games and other social functions. However, Bisciotti insisted that he will not attempt to influence Lewis' impending contract talks with general manager Ozzie Newsome and won't let friendship get in the way of what makes sense from a business standpoint.

"I don't see that happening," Bisciotti said. "Ray and I will talk, but Ray and I usually talk in generalities. We don't really talk specifics of contracts. I can't avoid personal relationships with people that are high-quality people in the organization with the fear that's going to taint the way I view this thing. I have so much respect for Ozzie Newsome.

"I hope I'm just having a dinner with Ray to celebrate a new contract, but my friendship can't influence things like that or Ozzie wouldn't want me in the building. There are a lot of guys on this team that I admire, and Ray is really at the top of that list. And nobody lov es and respects Ray more than Ozzie. As we say, in Ozzie we trust."

Although it's been rumored that the Dallas Cowboys are interested in Lewis to inject leadership into their fractured locker room, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters at the Senior Bowl that he doesn't foresee executing any major moves in free agency and that his primary focus is trying to extend the contract of All-Pro outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

Prior to the loss to the Steelers, Lewis made it clear that he wants to continue to play the game for a long time.

"I've got too much football left," Lewis said. "Playing the game of football is what I was brought up to do. It's the easiest thing I can ever do in my life is wake up and play football. I just love playing the game, so I don't know when my day is done.

"Honestly, if I ever spoke about my future outside of Baltimore while I was playing this game right here, I would be a very selfish individual towards my teammates. That's why it never crossed my mind. I don't get caught up into the business side of it."

The Ravens would prefer to lock up Lewis prior to the launch of free agency Feb. 27.

"We typically don't say, 'Go out and find your market value,'" Bisciotti said. "It really comes down to Ozzie and his agent being far apart instead of really close. If they're really close, then I think they believe that they're going to bang it out and get it done. It's just up to Ozzie to find out what he's worth and then to find out how big the gap is between he and the agent and that usually dictates if the guy slides into free agency or not.

"Ray is not going to settle for something that he thinks is way below. Are we going to get a hometown discount? I hope so, I really do. I hope I get a discount so I can find another Jimmy Leonhard with the money we save."

However, the Anne Arundel County businessman and member of Forbes' list of the richest Americans noted that if Lewis is looking to push the envelope and break the bank in contract talks, it could be a deal-breaker.

"If he wants to go out there and maximize his money and somebody is desperate for that kind of leadership, then there may be a big gap and I'm not going to say to Oz, 'Go do it under any circumstance,'" Bisciotti said. "That wouldn't be fair to Ozzie. He's got a plan and it's all pieces of the puzzle and I could make one demand and it would domino across the entire roster. And I can't do that to him."

Nonetheless, Bisciotti regards Lewis with such reverence that he considers this deal to be absolutely pivotal to the future of the organization on and off the field.

Lewis may have lost a step or two of pure speed, but remains a forceful hitter at 6-foot-1, 260 pounds. Just ask Tennessee Titans fullback Ahmard Hall, whose helmet Lewis knocked off with a brutal hit in the playoffs, or Pittsburgh Steelers r unning back Rashard Mendenhall, whose rookie season was ended with a broken shoulder on a Lewis tackle.

And Lewis, who's known for his anticipation of plays through film study, leads the franchise with 2,182 career tackles, ranks second all-time with 28 interceptions and first with 14 fumble recoveries. Only Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks has more career tackles than Lewis among active players.

Bisciotti wants to prevent an unpleasant scenario like the one where Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas ended his career incongruously wearing the San Diego Chargers' powder blue and gold.

"I got involved in 2000, but I was a fan of Ray Lewis before I bought the team," Bisciotti said. "There are very few people that I know in sports that transcend their statistics. We had the luxury of watching Cal Ripken simultaneously do the same thing to the Orioles. I think they bring a sense of continuity, a sense of leadership that we're all looking for.

"It's why we're all sports fans: to look up to people. And I think Ray has given Baltimore that. I certainly don't want to see him in another uniform. There are some of the very greats of the game that have had to move on, and we're going to do our best to prevent that."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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