1. There is nothing wrong with conceding that Ed Reed and Ray Lewis aren't the players they once were. I don't even think that statement is really all that controversial. No man can outrun the steady march of time, not even the two greatest defensive players of this era. But in a way, I'm more fascinated watching Reed and Lewis now than I was when they were both in their prime. Because they're both still capable of conjuring up a little magic. There is something admirable about watching a great lion dig deep and mount one final, furious charge. Perfection is unnecessary. All that matters is that you live to fight another day.
If you watch sports long enough, one common thread you're bound to pick up on is that the ability to live in semi-denial about whether or not you've lost half a step is a crucial part of being a great athlete. When Michael Jordan grinded out the last two years of his basketball career with the Wizards, he could not run or jump the way he once could. His knees ached, his shooting touch abandoned him at inopportune times, and he frequently looked mortal. For a lot of people, it was kind of sad to watch. It made people uncomfortable. Most of us wanted to remember Jordan for what he was during his career with the Bulls, the epitome of jaw-dropping athletic brilliance.
It never seemed to bother Jordan that much though, at least on the surface. And certainly not in the heat of competition. Because there were some nights when he felt like he was 30 years old again. When no matter how sore his knees were, he still pump-faked, head-faked and posted up his way to a big scoring night that helped his team win a basketball game. I loved watching those games, because even though transcendent athletic grace is a beautiful thing to watch, there is something even more interesting, at least to me, about watching truly great athlete try to close the gap between "who I was then" and "who I am now" with little more than desire and savvy to fuel the struggle.
To me, that was the thrill of watching Reed and Lewis in the Ravens' 20-13 win over the Texans on Sunday. This wasn't a pretty game. It wasn't a performance you'd want to frame and hang in your living room. But there was definitely a question hanging in the air at M&T Bank Stadium that a lot of people were thinking, even though very few of us wanted to say it out loud:
What if this is the last time Baltimore gets to watch Lewis and Reed play football together in this stadium?
Lewis doesn't like to spend time pondering such things. If you listened to him on Sunday, you got the impression he thinks he might even have a few years left after this one. He's still having too much fun playing to think about walking away.
"It's kind of hard to think about Father Time," Lewis said. "I don't have time to think about 'when it's time to do this' or 'when it's time to do that.' When it's over, it's over. Everybody here has to appreciate that great warriors fight until the end. Those are the stories that you'll always remember."
Reed has always been a little different. It's one reason why he's been the effective yin to Lewis' yang for more than a decade. Football matters a great deal to Reed. He has a lot of pride, and he loves the camaraderie he shares with his teammates. But football doesn't really define him. You can tell, when you listen to him, that he knows he has a finite number of Sundays left. Asked in the post-game press conference about some of the recent criticism that's been directed at him, columns suggesting he's not the dynamic playmaker he once was, Reed briefly defended himself, then shrugged and conceded some of it might be true. I couldn't help but notice in that moment that some of his hair has already gone a little prematurely gray.
"The picks haven't been coming because they don't throw my way as much," Reed said. "You've got to watch the football game and understand what's going on. But like I said, I missed a couple of tackles leading up to this game. It happens. It's part of the game. I'm also getting old. At one point, I won't be up here. You'll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore."
As different as they are, there is one thing about Lewis and Reed that is exactly the same: they played football on Sunday like they're aware, in the back of theirs minds, that this might be their last real chance to win a Super Bowl. This team might be flawed, and Lewis and Reed might contribute to some of those flaws, but what does that matter now? You can't roll back time. There is no one on the roster who could replace them in the lineup. They can only fight like hell to summon whatever it is they have left.
Lewis flew around the field against the Texans, and he missed some tackles, but he also made quite a few, including a key stop in the fourth quarter on a screen pass. Reed had a bit of an uneven game as well. He made a great tackle in the first half on a third down to force a punt, but he also couldn't reel in two interceptions that five years ago he would have easily snagged.
Every time the ball was in the air, however, Reed ignored the potential for injury or pain and sold out his body trying to intercept a T.J. Yates pass. And in the final minutes, when the team desperately needed him to make a play to bail out the offense, he snagged a clutch interception at the goal line and held onto the ball even though his ankle got violently twisted when he fell.
He hobbled off the field, with Ray Lewis of all people helping him get to the sidelines, and by the time he reached the locker room, he'd already declared himself fit to play next week against the Patriots.
"The confidence that we have in each other, I think, is more overwhelming than you can ever imagine," Lewis said of Reed, when asked about the bond they share.
Defensive artistry has always been somewhat difficult for football fans to appreciate and embrace. It's not as obviously beautiful as a Tom Brady spiral, or a Calvin Johnson fingertip touchdown catch. There is a reason the league has changed the rules, in recent years, to emphasize offense. It's easier for fans to process, to get excited about. But in Baltimore, defensive wizardry is kind of all we really know. I suppose it's what we've been destined to watch for the last 16 years, even though great defense and mediocre offense sometimes feels less like a blessing and more like a curse. I was thinking a lot about all this today as I walked to the stadium.
Just before the player introductions, I slipped out of the press box, ducked through the concourse and walked into the stands. It's something I haven't done in a long time, but I wanted to do it Sunday. The pressbox can feel so sterile sometimes. It's like watching a football game in a classroom, and sometimes it's good to get outside again away from the laptop.
There are a lot of people in other cities who can't stand Ray Lewis' pre-game dance. And on some level, I guess I understand why they feel that way. I've gone back and forth over the years on whether I like one player singling himself out like that. But I wanted to see Ed and Ray run out of the tunnel together, back-to-back, just in case this was the last time it ever happened. I wanted to take a second to absorb, one more time, the connection they both have with this city.
When they finally busted through the smoke and fireworks, the roar was so enormous, I could feel the vibrations in my chest. I don't know what either of them was thinking in that moment. Maybe they weren't thinking about anything in particular, other than the Texans. Maybe they have no intention of retiring any time soon. But in that moment, I think I know how most of the Ravens fans in that stadium -- and many of them watching at home -- felt.
If this is the final charge, all you can do is enjoy it. All we can do is soak up whatever time there is left.