Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lewis fierce, but Willis best

NEW ORLEANS

Here in the middle of the Ray Lewis Show, the lather continues. Later, there will be froth.

He owns the TV cameras, which stack in front of him as if waiting for him to break into one of those pregame dances. He owns the headlines, too, whether they are about his "last ride" (a phrase he uses about every 30 seconds) or the accusations that his comeback was fueled by deer-antler spray (a banned substance the NFL will get around to checking out a few weeks after Lewis retires).

Let's face it: Lewis owns the NFL, right up to being lampooned by Saturday Night Live.

Lewis is the biggest figure in this Super Bowl, and he is growing. There has never been an athlete quite so willing to talk about the glory of being him. The rest of the Ravens might as well be backup dancers on Lewis' farewell tour.

Yet there is this: Once you get beyond the image, Lewis isn't even the best inside linebacker in Sunday's game.

And hello there, Patrick Willis.

It seems kind of rude to bring it up in the middle of the party and all, but yeah, on the list of impact linebackers, the 49ers' Willis clearly has passed Lewis. At 28, this is his time. All the face paint in the world doesn't change that.

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Willis," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. told ESPN last year. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

None of this is an affront at the legacy of Lewis. Over his career, he has been an excellent inside linebacker, one of the finest the game has seen. He will move quickly, and deservedly, into the Hall of Fame, and no one should whisper that he doesn't belong. Once, he was amazing.

But if you judge it in the present tense, talent vs. talent, linebacker vs. linebacker, Willis is, by far, the better linebacker in everything but volume and reputation.

He is a quieter man, Willis, and he doesn't talk as fast or beat his chest as loudly. He isn't as quick to define his legacy as Lewis. But like the Lewis of five seasons ago, running anywhere near Willis is a jog through a bad neighborhood.

Better than Lewis? These days, Willis is better than anyone.

"I never have been a person to talk about myself," Willis said. "My job is to go out and compete all the time at a high level. People always make comparisons of me to other people. I have the tattoos I have for a reason. On the inside when I flex, it says, 'I'm me.' "

Prod him, however, and the 2007 first-round pick out of Mississippi will admit that he wants to be in the Hall of Fame one day. He wants to be the best.

So far, so good. In six seasons, Willis has reached the Pro Bowl six times. He has been a first-team All-Pro five times, second-team once. He seems poised to become the inside linebacker of his generation.

Why isn't he more recognized? That often comes with playing in the Super Bowl. Also, the 49ers also have NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith (who both made the Pro Bowl this season).

Also, he doesn't dance nearly as well as Lewis.

They are similar, you know. Willis even picked his jersey number, 52, because of Lewis. Well, sort of. When he signed, the 49ers had four numbers available: 51, 52, 57 and 59. Willis thought of himself as an even-numbered guy. Oh, yeah, and Lewis wore No. 52.

Funny thing. For all of the headlines dedicated to Lewis this week, there haven't been many to actually ask how good he still is at the age of 37.

The brutal answer is this: not nearly as good as he used to be.

However, Lewis is still in charge of the Ravens defense, of making the calls, or making sure others are in the right position. Don't underestimate that. He still guards his territory fiercely.

But he no longer runs the way he used to run, and he is no longer as explosive from the hips as he used to be. He is not a liability, but he is no longer the linebacker he used to be.

Sunday, we will watch Lewis one last time.

Who knows? Maybe he'll make Willis proud.

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