A Tale of Two Linebackers

KickCanEarlier today, Ray Lewis announced that this postseason will be his “last ride” and regardless of the result of his push for a second ring, this postseason will be the last time that we see one of the most electric players in NFL history take the field.  Ray Lewis is an all-time great and five years from now will likely be enshrined in Canton.  More than that, he is the identity of the Baltimore Ravens and his #52 will likely be the first number the Baltimore Ravens retire.  You can debate the all-time greatest 49er or greatest Packer or Cowboy but when it comes to the Baltimore Ravens there is no debate, Ray Lewis is the greatest Raven to ever play the game.

As with any great player who retires, the media feels the need to reflect on that player’s career and more than anything, the recency-bias of the sports media comes out because we have a media that tends to forget there were sports prior to the existence of ESPN.  So of course today the debate was not whether or not Ray Lewis was a Hall of Famer (because that’s a given) but whether or not he is the greatest middle linebacker of all time.  ESPN writer Jamison Hensley took it a step further and called Ray Lewis, the “greatest defensive player in NFL history”.

With all due respect Mr. Hensley, how can you call a player the best defensive player ever when it’s arguable whether they weren’t the best at their position when they played? (You can read his asinine article here) For more than a decade all eyes have been on Baltimore but only 32 miles away there’s a linebacker with similar stats who has been just as good, if not better.

ESPN's Jamison Hensley had the audacity to call Ray Lewis the greatest defensive player ever when another player on the beltway could very well challenge him for the title of greatest middle linebacker of his era.

ESPN’s Jamison Hensley had the audacity to call Ray Lewis the greatest defensive player ever when another player on the beltway could very well challenge him for the title of greatest middle linebacker of his era.

Just two years after Ray Lewis was drafted, London Fletcher signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent where he was named the Rams Rookie of the Year in 1998.  In his second year (and first year as a starter), Fletcher anchored the Rams defense that went on to win the Super Bowl and was a key piece in the Rams returning to the Super Bowl after the 2001 season.   While Ray Lewis will always be “Mr. Raven” so to speak, Fletcher left the Rams after the 2001 season to join the Buffalo Bills and in his first year, set the Bills franchise record for tackles with 209.   He led the Bills in tackles every year that he was with the team and continued that tradition when he joined the Redskins in 2007.

Not only has Fletcher led his respective teams in tackles year in and year out, he has led the NFL.  Nobody has more tackles this millennium than London Fletcher.

But the fact is that when London Fletcher does retire he will probably go quietly into the night.  While five years from now Ray Lewis will bring his evangelical stylings to the podium at Canton, London Fletcher will likely have to fight for years and years to get in the Hall if he ever does get in and my question is why?

I have compiled the following to show the similarity in the careers of London Fletcher & Ray Lewis:

LondonRayAs you can see in two fewer seasons, Fletcher has posted similar numbers to those of Hensley’s “greatest defensive player ever” and he has done so in a number of different schemes for different teams that did not have nearly the defensive personnel that Ray Lewis has surrounding him.   These are both great sets of numbers but forget arguing for the best defensive player ever the question really is – who is the best middle linebacker on the Beltway?

While the stats will be cited (and it is impressive to note that Ray Lewis is the founding and lone member of the 40 sack/30 interception club) the big thing people keep talking about is the leadership and longevity of Ray Lewis.

But if we’re going to talk about leadership then we have to talk about the quiet, reserved leadership of a man who has won the Bart Starr Award and never had issues with the law.  A man who seems ageless and has set the single season tackles record for 2 different franchises; a man who has led his respective team in tackles for nine straight seasons;  and a man whose leadership propelled an ailing Redskins defense into the playoffs this season; and that man is London Fletcher.

If we’re going to praise the longevity of Ray Lewis at a physical position, then we should be reminded that London Fletcher has never missed a game playing in 240 games over 15 seasons.  His 195 consecutive starts are second most among active players behind Ronde Barber.

If we’re going to praise Ray Lewis for his longevity then maybe we should take the time to ask ourselves whether longevity should be judged by playing for a long time or the level you play at over that time?  The fact is that Ray Lewis’s legendary career peaked  in the middle of last decade while London Fletcher continues to play at a high level having led the league in tackles in 2011.  While Ray Lewis has 9 more Pro Bowl appearances than Fletcher, it is due to the folly of the voters; not to the fact that Ray Lewis was better than Fletcher for more seasons.

If we want to talk about true longevity then we need to remember that Ray Lewis has not topped 139 tackles in a season since 2004.   In that same span, Fletcher equaled or topped that mark 5 times.   Fletcher had more sacks in the month of December than Ray Lewis had all season.   London Fletcher’s interceptions (5) in 2012 were more than Ray Lewis has had in the last 4 years combined (3).   London Fletcher has 1 more forced fumble over the past four seasons (with 8) than Ray Lewis.  This is not to discount the career of Ray Lewis but in what is supposed to be the twilight of his career, London Fletcher is still playing at an incredibly high level and shouldn’t that be a true measure of a player’s longevity.

Today many are asking if Ray Lewis is the greatest middle linebacker of all time and those clouded with Baltimore or recency bias (or maybe a shred of both) are asking if Ray Lewis is the greatest defensive player of all time.    There’s no doubt he’s had a Hall of Fame career and while this is an acceptable conversation to have the better question is:

Was Ray Lewis the best linebacker/defensive player of his era?

Because while Lewis was dancing in front of the cameras in Baltimore, Fletcher was grinding away in St. Louis, Buffalo, and D.C. getting the same results.  While Ray Lewis was not much more than an emotional cheerleader the last two seasons, Fletcher was busy leading his team and the league in tackles.   While Ray Lewis dazzled the sports media and was voted into Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl, Fletcher put up the same (and better) seasons as Lewis and was ignored.

And while Ray Lewis will get a call from Canton within the first two years of eligibility; Fletcher will likely wait and wait on a call that may never come.   And it’s not because Ray Lewis was that much better but it’s because the story the sports media told us was a lie.

The media would’ve told us that Ray Lewis was the greatest defensive player ever when he wasn’t even the best active player at his position.

Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? Let me hear ’em!
And be sure to follow us on Twitter @can_of_corn

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