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!
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The Cafe 101: The 2nd Course

Sports Heaven's most exclusive restaurant is the Cafe 101. As the name suggests there are only 101 tables, each reserved for the greatest to don that number.

Imagine there’s a sports heaven;
It’s easy if you try.
Where sports’ greatest legends
Depart to when they die.

Imagine all the athletes, of past and present day.

Now imagine a Cafe;
It’s not that hard to do.
There’s only 101 tables;
It’s open to a select few.

Imagine all the athletes, hoping to get a seat.

You may say I’m a dreamer;
But I’m not the only one.
Deciding the greatest athletes by number;
Who get to enter the Cafe 101.

<< PREVIOUS

In our first course I took on the challenge of seating tables 7, 30, 59, and 88.  This week I take on two pretty difficult tasks as I have to take on Table #10, a number that is sacred to soccer and #80, a number donned by some of the greatest wide receivers of all time.  If you would like to read my previous Cafe 101 post please use the link above.  So without further ado, let’s look at four more tables at the Cafe 101.

TABLE

PELE

Forward, Brazil National Team, Santos, & New York Cosmos (1956-1977)
3x World Cup Champion, 2x Roca Cup Winner, 1958 FIFA Silver Boot, 1958 FIFA Silver Ball, 1970 FIFA Golden Ball,  FIFA Player of the Century – 1999, UNICEF Football Player of the Century – 1999

I was told that when I went with #10 I was going to have to choose a soccer player.  The #10 is sacred in the sport of soccer but the reason it’s so sacred is the only player to have 3 World Cup medals – Pele.  While my favorite #10 is Fran Tarkenton and a lot of great athletes have worn this number, Table #10 is about “Who is the greatest soccer player of all time?” and in my opinion that is Pele.   Aside from his championship pedigree, his 1281 goals in 1363 games is still a record for most all-time.  In baseball we often talk about the 5-tool baseball player as that rare guy who can do “EVERYTHING”, well Pele was a 5-tool soccer star.  He could dribble, he could pass, he could shoot, he could head, and he could score.  Not only was he named the soccer player of the century; he was named by the Athlete of the Century by Reuters and the International Olympic Committee.  While I thought for awhile about this table, when I think #10 I think Pele and I think most other sports fans do as well.   He is so well-respected that multiple countries around the world have depicted him on their postage stamps.  I’m no expert on the game of soccer and while some may consider Maradona, Zidane, or one day in the future Lionel Messi – I still believe Pele to be the greatest soccer player of all time.

RUNNER-UP: ZINEDINE ZIDANE, Midfielder, Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus, Real Madrid, & French National Team (1988-2006)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Ron Santo, Phil Rizzuto, Mookie Blaylock (College), Andre Dawson, Michele Platini, Diego Maradona, Walt Frazier, Guy LaFleur, Wayne Rooney, Zico, Vince Young (College), Dennis Rodman, Maurice Cheeks, Fran Tarkenton, Michelle Akers, Tim Hardaway, Nancy Lieberman, Eli Manning, & Marti Vieria de Silva

TOO SOON TO TELL:  DeSean Jackson, Adam Jones, Santonio Holmes, Vernon Wells, Matt Flynn, Landon Donovan & Lionel Messi

TABLE

JENNIE FINCH

Starting Pitcher, Arizona Wildcats, USA National Team, & Chicago Bandits (1999-2010)
2004 Olympic Gold Medalist, 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist, Most Outstanding Player – 2001 College World Series,  2001 National Player of the Year, 3x All-American,  2001 College World Series National Champion, 2x World Cup Champion, National Pro-Fastpitch Co-Pitcher of the Year – 2005

There are many great athletes who have worn the #27.  Many immediately think of Carlton Fisk or Juan Marichal in baseball.  They think of Scott Niedermayer in hockey and Eddie George or Steve Atwater in football.  There are a lot of current stars in sports who don 27 but I feel like the greatest athlete to have worn 27 is Jennie Finch.  I understand that my knowledge of the sport of softball is limited and she is from my generation but the more I talk to those who follow the sport, watch highlights, and read, I am convinced that Jennie Finch is the greatest all-around softball player in the history of the game.   She’s always been a winner – she won one national championship in college, has two Olympic medals, and won two World Cups.

As a college pitcher she set an NCAA record with 60 straight wins shattering the previous mark of 50.   Over a four year college career she won 119 games and struck out 1,028 batters including going 32-0 in her junior year.    She had a 1.07 career ERA in college, and a 0.42 career ERA as a member of the USA National Team.  Her pitch was 71 mph (the equivalent of a 98 mph pitch in baseball) and she threw it consistently.  While I could not find an exact number of no-hitters and perfect games she pitched, I do still remember when she threw back-to-back-to-back no-hitters in the 2000 College World Series.   On top of her pitching prowess she was also great hitter,  batting over .300 each year of college and for the Chicago Bandits in 2005.    She even put together a 14-game hitting streak her sophomore year of college.  Yes, I feel pretty confident that Jennie deserves Table #27.

RUNNER-UP (TIE): CARLTON FISK, Catcher, Boston Red Sox & Chicago White Sox (1969, 1971 – 1993) & SCOTT NIEDERMAYER, Defenceman, New Jersey Devils & Anaheim Ducks (1991-2010)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Scott Niedermayer, Juan Marichal, “Catfish” Hunter, Jeremy Roenick, Vladimir Guerrero, Eddie George, Jack Twyman, Fred McGriff, & Steve Atwater

TOO SOON TO TELL: Ray Rice, Lagarette Blount, Placido Polanco, & Brandon Jacobs

TABLE

JACK HAM

Outside Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers (1971-1982)
4x Super Bowl Champion, 8x Pro Bowler, 6x 1st Team All-Pro, 2x 2nd team All-Pro, NFL 1970’s All-Decade Team, NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, Hall of Fame – 1988

I’ve had a number of my readers ask how I decide what four numbers I am going to do for each article.  It’s simple really, I use a Random Number Generator to select one number between 00 and 23, 24 and 48, 49 and 74, and 75 and 99.  When I was given these four numbers I didn’t realize that #59 would be so tough.  I immediately thought of Jack Ham but then I was reminded of London Fletcher – a largely underrated linebacker who has better stats than the much-heralded Ray Lewis with more Super Bowl appearances meanwhile collecting more tackles than any other player between 2000 and 2009.  But when I compared the two, I had to go with Jack Ham who is considered by many to be the greatest outside linebacker the NFL has ever seen.

During his career, Ham had 25 career sacks (unofficially), 32 interceptions, and 21 fumble recoveries.  He was a leader of the famed “Steel Curtain” defense and was known for his speed and ferocious tackling ability.  What he’s most remembered for though is being a highly intelligent football player who rarely missed an assignment or was out of place.  Many players in his time often noted how “you couldn’t trick Jack [Ham]”.  He is one of the greatest defensive players the NFL has ever seen and deserves Table #59.

RUNNER-UP: LONDON FLETCHER, St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills, & Washington Redskins (1998 – Present)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Seth Joyner, Alex Agase, Chad LaRose, & Todd Jones

TOO SOON TO TELL: John Axford, DeMeco Ryans, Aaron Curry, & Felix Hernandez

TABLE

JERRY RICE

Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, & Seattle Seahawks (1985 – 2004)
3x Super Bowl Champion, 13x Pro-Bowl Selection, 12x All-Pro Selection, 2x AP Offensive Player of the Year, 3x NFC Offensive Player of the Year, NFL 1980’s All-Decade Team, NFL 1990’s All-Decade Team, Hall of Fame – 2010

There have been a number of great athletes who have worn #80 but this was without a doubt going to Jerry Rice, not only the greatest wide receiver of all-time but to many – he’s the greatest football player of all time.   He holds the record for career receptions with 1,549 (445 ahead of Tony Gonzalez), as well as receiving yards with 22,895 and total non-passing touchdowns with 208.  From 1985 – 1999 he had 1000 yards receiving each season and holds nearly every receiving record of significance.  Jerry Rice is such an obvious choice for this number that there really isn’t much to say here.

RUNNER-UP: CRIS CARTER, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, & Miami Dolphins (1987-2002)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Steve Largent, Henry Ellard, Kellen Winslow, Rick Bryan, Andre Johnson, Isaac Bruce, Nik Antropov, Ronaldinho, & Donald Driver

TOO SOON TO TELL: Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, Jr., Jimmy Graham, & Victor Cruz

Click photo to enlarge the seating chart for Sports Heaven's most exclusive restaurant

Will your favorite athletes be able to get a table at the Cafe 101? Keep reading to find out!  If you have any questions, comments, or snide remarks please comment below or tweet them to @can_of_corn!