Super Bowl Sunday: Ray Lewis Vs. Patrick Willis
In one corner you have Lewis, playing his final NFL game on his way toward a spot in the Hall of Fame after a 17-year career. On the other side, you find 28-year-old Patrick Willis who is currently playing in his sixth NFL season.
These two stars have not been afraid to voice their respect for each other. In April of 2011, Lewis said that Willis was the young linebacker that best reminded him of himself on ESPN First Take. Leading up the Super Bowl, Willis was quick to commend Lewis on their shared numbers and Lewis’ passion on the field.
Super Bowl XLII will either be a triumphant conclusion to a historic career in Lewis, or it will be the moment in which Willis steps out of Lewis' shadow. To help separate the No. 52’s, let’s take a look at some of the best moments from their NFL careers.
LAYING OUT THE DRAFT STOCK
Both players have elite physical attributes, allowing them to thrive at one of the most physical positons in the NFL. They both measure in at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, and possess elite strength in the trenches.
Leaving college after his junior season in 1996, Ray Lewis ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash before the NFL Draft. Those results in his Pro Day landed Lewis as the 26th selection in the 1996 NFL Draft as the fifth linebacker taken.
According to an NFL Draft preview from Bill Plaschke, Lewis was seen as possessing speed, tackling ability, and intensity, but many considered his lack of size and off-the field issues a potential liability.
The San Francisco 49ers selected Patrick Willis with the 11th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. During his college career, Willis broke his right hand and played with a large white cast around his arm. He said that the injury actually helped him wrap up by forcing him to only make body tackles.
EARLY CAREER PRODUCTION
Since Willis is a much younger player, we need to discuss the beginning years of both players career to properly compare these giants.
Lewis earned USA Today's All-Rookie team honors after his 15 tackles for loss led the NFL and 110 tackles led the Ravens in the 1996 season. He added 2.5 sacks, six pass deflections and an interception on the season.
Willis earned AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and first-team All-Pro in an impressive 2007 campaign with an NFL-leading 174 total tackles, along with four sacks, two forced fumbles and five passes deflected.
Lewis was even better in his second season, posting his best individual statistical season in 1997 recording 183 total tackles, four sacks and grabbing one pick. Willis best statistical season remains his rookie season, but don’t think the impact he has on the field has diminished.
TEAM'S BEST DEFENSIVE SEASONS
The latter led the stout 2011-2012 San Francisco 49ers defense that carried the team to a 13-3 finish and a trip to the NFC Championship Game. This defense only allowed 229 points during the regular season while forcing 42 turnovers.
San Francisco's plus-28 turnover ratio led the NFL, and set a league record in what was deemed one of the best defensive seasons in recent memory. Last year’s 49ers defense was elite, but they stand second fiddle to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Lewis’ 1999-2000 defense carried the Ravens to a 12-4 record on the regular season on their way to Super Bowl XXXV Title. That team only allowed 165 points, or 10.3 PPG for you math majors.
Lewis and Willis were equally solid in those seasons but the edge remains with Lewis because of the namesake of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens Defense.
In the leadership department, you cannot overlook the importance of this 2012-2013 season on the emotional impact that Lewis has on the Ravens. Lewis is like a fiery prophet for the Ravens; when he speaks, everybody listens.
The Ravens finished the regular season 1-4 but received a major boost of emotional energy when their leader Lewis returned to action.
In his three games since returning from a torn triceps tendon, Lewis has recorded 44 tackles, playing inspired football to propel his Ravens magical postseason run.
Willis is the silent-but-deadly leader that uses his example to set the tone on the football field. When Mike Singletary took over, Willis was the prototypical leader to institute his stout principles on defense.
Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Singletary commended Willis, saying that he will accomplish things that no inside linebacker has ever done. Willis has been a leader his entire life beginning at the age of four when he was forced to become a father figure to three younger siblings because his mother and father separated.
PRE-GAME CELEBRATIONS GALORE
Ray Lewis will have one more chance to dance the Ray Lewis Shuffle in his final NFL game. The Lewis Shuffle has been an iconic dance that he uses to set intimidation into his opponents minds by instilling his personal toughness in a pre-game dance.
In his final home game against Indianapolis, Lewis did one last shuffle as the seconds ticked down in Baltimore. This moment was a heart-felt expression of excitement for the greatness football has given Lewis, with the days numbered on his football life.
Willis brings the wood on the field letting his brute strength and athletic prowess star in the highlight reel. After a big play, Willis jumps to his feet and flexes his guns towards the sky in a sheer moment of power.
Both celebrations are genuine, respected amongst the league, and totally earned from terrific careers hawking down defenders sideline-to-sideline.
The fact that we are having this discussion proves one thing: Both players have been the best of their era, as leaders and middle linebackers. It’s great that we have this discussion, but I think a bigger point must be made about these All-Pro players but more importantly people.
Willis has fought through adversity that is tough to imagine, a battle he takes to the football field on a daily basis. With All-Pro selections in each of his six seasons, Willis has hit the ground running in the NFL with another 10-plus years in the horizon for the San Francisco great.
Lewis has climbed to the top, fallen off with personal issues and returned to the football field motivated for victories on the field and in life. In spite of his struggles, Lewis continues to motivate children in the local Maryland community, while loving every minute of his NFL career.