With the announcement of his retirement, Ray Lewis and his career have come into spotlight, as the sports media considers his place in NFL history. While I am certainly not a fan of Ray Lewis, I cannot deny his impact on the NFL, and I am more than willing to admit that he’s one of the best defensive players in the history of the sport. Lewis led a Ravens defense that is certainly in the top five defenses of all time, and his motivational techniques cannot be denied, as much as I’d like to discredit them. So after admitting my bias against Lewis, allow me to compare Lewis against his main “rival” as we consider how these two players will go down in NFL history.
Who was better, Derrick Brooks or Ray Lewis?
Buccaneers fans certainly look upon Mr. Brooks as one of the best players, if not the best player, in team history. Brooks won 2002 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and has the most First Team All Pro and Pro Bowl appearances in team history. He started 221 games for the Buccaneers, and despite not being the most outgoing personality on the team, Brooks is widely considered modern Bucs’ fans favorite player. The FSU product played 14 years in the NFL, all with the Buccaneers, and despite playing a different position from Lewis (Brooks played outside, Lewis played inside), the overlap in the two players’ careers provides plenty of opportunities to compare two of the best linebackers to ever take to the Sunday gridiron.
The first thing to consider is that Lewis played 3 more seasons than Brooks, but only appeared in 4 more games. Brooks certainly proved to be the more durable player over the course of his NFL career, playing 16 games per season from 1995 to 2008. Lewis missed multiple games in a handful of his NFL season. While this seems a bit unfair, this is certainly an advantage for Brooks. It also provides a solid base upon which to evaluate the two backers, as they played a similar amount of games, so counting statistics will be reasonably close, thanks to a similar sample size.
Just looking at the basics, Ray Lewis finished his NFL regular season career with 1573 tackles, 500 assisted tackles, and one safety to his name. Brooks ended his NFL career with 1301 tackles, 414 assisted tackles, and no safeties. Obviously the advantage goes to Lewis here, but it is to be expected, as the middle linebacker position will often produce a higher number of tackles. See Luke Kuechly this season for a perfect example. Lewis was able to deliver more highlight reel hits, as well, so it is safe to say that Lewis has the edge in the tackling department.
Taking a look at turnovers, the pair of linebackers is very similar. Lewis ended with more interceptions than Brooks, registering 31 to Brooks’ 25. However, Brooks was able to turn 6 of his interceptions into touchdowns, as opposed to only 3 for Lewis. Brooks also forced 24 fumbles, more than Lewis’ 19. Brooks added yet another touchdown via fumble recovery, bringing his career score total to 7. This means Brooks directly accounted for 42 career points, more than Lewis’ 20. While this category is certainly close, Brooks ability to turn turnovers into points gives him the edge.
The final traditional linebacker statistic to take a look at is sacks, and this one is a blowout in favor of Ray Lewis. Brooks finished with only 13.5 sacks, which is nothing compared to Lewis and his 41.5 sacks. Again, this is due to a vast difference in roles, as Lewis was used in pass rushing situations far more often than Brooks, who assumed a zone role in the Tampa 2 defense rather than a pass-rushing role. Obviously, advantage Lewis here.
Both of these players originally out of the state of Florida has similarly dominant NFL careers. Both of them were leaders and icons for their respective franchises. Both were key figures in their franchises only Super Bowl victories. But it is with gritted teeth and a sickened stomach that I must admit that Lewis has had the better career. While the off-the-field history of the Raven legend is certainly more questionable than the Buccaneer great, on the field, there is no doubt that Ray Lewis is one of the best defensive players of all time, and he might just be the greatest linebacker of all time.
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