Ray Lewis on the Uncertain Future of Smash-Mouth Football
The era of the tough guy may be over and the ultimate hardass is surprisingly fine with that.
tails off at the end of his sentences. The perennial All-Pro
Defensive Back and eyeblack enthusiast spent his career chasing quarterbacks and gobbling up runners, but he’s far from strident when the cameras turn off. We’re not going to call it gentleness because that would be ridiculous, but he seems calm and he seems proud of his ability to be calm. It’s a trait he admires and one he hopes to encourage in coaches, the men who (in theory anyway) encourage young players. With his new show “
,” Lewis has set out to set whistleblowers straight, but he’s not yelling this time. He’s basically asking why we can’t all just get along.
This will sound odd to the millions of fans who still think of Lewis as a football monster, the guy young running backs fear might be hiding under their bed. But it isn’t weird for Lewis, who insists that he rarely tackles anyone anymore and gives very few rousing, expletive-laced speeches to his kids – even the one who plays at “The U.”
talked to the thoughtful maneater about the future of the game he dominated, why his particularly brand of stardom might not be long for the league, and the perverse joy of watching a Super Bowl team lose.
Do you think the version of football we saw this season – that we’ll see in the Super Bowl – is the same thing we’ll be seeing in a decade?
I don’t know. Probably not. That’s the biggest question in my line of work right now. Where is the game headed? Where do we go now that players are bigger, stronger and faster. I say it all the time: We just don’t know.
You don’t see the status quo as sustainable.
It’s an unpredictable thing. The game has changed a lot and it will keep on changing. The only thing that won’t change is this: It’s about running and tackling. There’s just so much other stuff that’s distracting. If I was going to go on a rant about all the distraction around football we’d be here for hours.
Speaking of distractions, your PR person just asked me to not ask about Deflategate, which is more than fine by me. Does it get frustrating as a commentator to always be asked for a hot take?
You have to choose the things you speak about and the things you don’t speak about. That’s the thing that TV gives you and I try to be smart about it. What I care about is the product, which is the players. That’s my job as a leader and a sort of father figure for this game.
That’s interesting. I think most people would say that the games are the product, but you don’t feel that way.
The players are what puts people in seats. You go to a football game to watch players and what keeps the game alive is individual stories and individual life decisions. People don’t think about how many decisions are being made on and off the field, but that’s what the sport actually is.
Here’s the thing: I’m a man and a father and a son and then I go work in the NFL. Players are people and they have to figure out how to be their own brands as well. The bigger brand, the league, will exist forever regardless of any single one of us, so players have to watch out for themselves and their futures.
One of the big things this season was the rise of JJ Watt and, to a lesser degree, Kam Chancellor. Those guys are big scary defensemen from the Ray Lewis mold. Do you think that type of stardom based on a hard-as-nails persona will still be a thing going forward?
I really don’t know. I like those guys, but things change.
A few years back when you were still terrifying quarterbacks, I don’t know that we would have predicted a future in which you became the voice telling coaches to calm down.
When you’ve got that job, you’ve gotta play a little pissed off. It is what it is. But the people over me over the years always had different ways to coach. My thing was respecting players as people. There are plenty of ways to get a kid’s attention without smashing them into the ground and you don’t really know people’s circumstances so you’ve got to try to give everyone some space.
Were there any particular coaches you felt like you learned a lot from over the years?
I remember there was a game in which Marvin Lewis made a specific defensive call that I didn’t like and I lost it. He pulled me over on the sidelines and he said, “Listen, no matter if we disagree or not, you’ve gotta make it work – then we’ll talk.” He taught me that you’ve got to know your influence on other people. I was distracting people. So I started to change and really focused on encouraging people, still giving feedback but trying to get them ready for the next thing.
How much of your concern is really about the way coaches are behaving in youth leagues?
A lot of kids spend more time with their coaches than with their parents. If we’re going to be fathering them either way, we might as well be good at it. Men should be working on that.
And parents may be more reluctant now than ever to have there kids play ball. Do you think that coaches have to change their behavior as health risks become more widely understood?
Listen, there’s risks in everything you do. There’s risks in being a fireman or a policeman. Not everyone is built to play football. Coaches have to understand that you have to focus on lifestyle because most kids aren’t going pro and pros aren’t going to make it if life throws them in a bunch of different directions and they don’t know how to handle it.
Do you aspire to be an NFL coach?
You know, everything I do right now – whether you want to call it coaching or mentoring or leadership – is coaching. I just don’t have the infrastructure or a whistle. But you never know.
Who are you rooting for this week?
Let’s just say I know a lot of players in the league and leave it there.
What do you look for when you’re watching a Super Bowl?
I get to watch the irony of that big game, which is that one of those teams will have had a great, successful season and made it through the playoffs and walk away completely disappointed. Sports are rough like that. Half the guys on that field – no one will want to talk to them afterwards.
I never lost a Super Bowl, but I can still see that pain.
Photos by Harry How / Getty Images