— Two weeks ago, John Harbaugh told reporters that he talked to Ray Lewis about a reduced role on defense. Harbaugh was planning for the future, not making an immediate change. Still, he sounded about as confident as a guy telling his girlfriend they should start seeing other people.
"The response I basically get is, 'When the time comes, we can talk about it,'" Harbaugh told the Baltimore Sun. "And I agree with that." Harbaugh said he may wait five years before asking Lewis to become a part-time player. "We'll probably have a little fight, and I might lose at first," Harbaugh said, speculating about a coaching decision he doesn't plan to make for another half a decade.
The 35-year-old Lewis is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and possibly the greatest linebacker in NFL history. He is also clearly not as good as he was when he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl after the 2000 season, and fans have been calling him "overrated" for years. Is he getting the Brett Favre treatment?
Harbaugh can't afford to be sentimental with the division on the line in Sunday night's game against the Steelers. If it's time for Lewis to become a situational pass rusher, or an early-down run stuffer, Harbaugh has to pull the trigger.
Football Outsiders has a statistical database on Lewis that dates back to 1997: every tackle, every situation, every result. The numbers confirm that Lewis isn't the same player he was from 1997-2004. He is now the same player he was from 2006-2009, however. And that player is still an excellent, starting-caliber linebacker.
Against the run
Lewis' tackle totals indicate that he's slipped a lot from his Super Bowl heyday. Lewis registered 156 solo tackles in 1997 and 131 in 1999. Except for his injury-shortened 2002 season, he recorded more than 100 tackles every year from 1997 through 2004. He hasn't registered triple digits in tackles since, maxing out at 95 last season. He has 72 this year, putting him on pace for 105.
Tackle statistics are a terrible measure of a defender's performance. Any starting linebacker can rack up 80-90 tackles in a season, and the highest tackle totals are often produced by ordinary starters on bad defenses. James Anderson, a good-not-great starter for Carolina, currently has 76 tackles, because the Panthers' defense always appears to be on the field.
When it comes to tackles, quality is just as important as quantity. That's why Football Outsiders keeps track of "successes" and "defeats". Successes are tackles for short gains: the definition is more scientific than that, but think of tackling a runner for a three-yard gain on 1st-and-10 as a "stop". Defeats are tackles for no gain, a loss, or to prevent a first down on third down. We also break tackles down by running and passing plays to learn which linebackers are run-pluggers and which excel in coverage.
This table shows Lewis' career performance against the run. "Plays" are just tackles, including those that come after 15-yard runs. The "stops" and "defeats" are the good stuff. From 1997 through 2001, Lewis was one of the greatest run defenders in NFL history, stopping dozens of runners per year for only a yard or two. To put 81 "successes" (2001) into perspective, Lewis stopped the opposing running back for a minimal gain five times in the average game. Even if that's all he did — no sacks, no interceptions, no pass coverage — it would be a significant contribution.
Lewis' run-stuffing ability dropped off after his 2005 injury, but then stabilized. His 2006-08 numbers are incredibly consistent: 45-50 successes, 9-12 defeats, and an above-league-average 3.4 yards per carry allowed. His 2009 stats were even a little better. His yards-per-rush are off this season, but he's on pace for about the same number of successes and defeats as last year. There's no sign that he has lost a step, at least since 2006.
Against the pass
Ah, but old linebackers usually hold up well against the run; you don't have to be fast to plug the A-gap. It's the pass coverage that gets messy. Maybe it is time for Lewis to hit the bench when opponents are playing catch-up so he doesn't have to chase speedy scat-backs all over the field.
Maybe not. The second table shows his performance against the pass. Think of successes on pass plays as tackles on screen passes for four yards on 2nd-and-10. Defeats can be sacks, interceptions or drive-killing tackles. Again, Lewis' performance from 1997-2004 was other-worldly. About twice per game, he made important tackles on passing plays, in addition to all of those "ordinary" tackles in which he made a play after the receiver gained some significant yardage.
As with his rushing stats, Lewis' passing stats dip after his 2005 injury: the seasons of 39 successes and 25 defeats disappear. But as with his rushing stats, the numbers stabilize. Lewis only records about 3 sacks per year, so nearly all of his defeats come in coverage. He's still holding receivers to 6-7 yards per catch, and he's consistently making 20-30 solid plays in coverage every year.
In short, Lewis slipped from his Most Valuable Player level performance of a decade ago to about the level of a Pro Bowl alternate in 2006. He has since held steady for five years. No wonder Harbaugh expects him to hold steady for another five.
Against the odds
Lewis had seven tackles and an interception against the Steelers early in the year. He broke up a pass on 3rd-and-8, stopped Rashard Mendenhall for no gain once and for two yards several times, and picked off a Charlie Batch pass to ice a Ravens' win. He made plays all over the field. He has faced the Steelers 26 times in his career and probably knows their offense about as well as Ben Roethlisberger does. He may have a sit-down with Harbaugh sometime before 2015, but it won't be this week.
How long can Lewis keep this up? One problem with tackle statistics is that they weren't kept reliably up until the 1990s. It's impossible to compare tackle totals, let alone run-pass breakdowns to those of Mike Singletary or Jack Lambert. We do know that Singletary retired at 34, Lambert at 32. If Lewis (remember, he's 35) isn't ready to hear about missing some downs, I don't want to be the guy who brings up retirement.
Lewis is a once-in-a-generation player — and, sure, the wheels aren't moving like they used to — he's hardly getting by on reputation. He may keep playing until the next generation. At the rate he's going, he might as well.