In the aftermath of another solid performance by an improving Ravens defense on Sunday, reports surfaced that all-everything linebacker Ray Lewis might return a couple of weeks earlier than expected from the triceps injury that originally appeared to end his 2012 season.
It apparently is a real possibility that he could return in time to stare down Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in mid-December, but it's fair to ask - without showing an ounce of disrespect to Lewis or his Hall of Fame career - whether it is really necessary for him to rush back when the defense has made great strides over the past several weeks and the team has built a nice cushion in the AFC North.
There was a time earlier this season when that wasn't the case and the defense seemed desperate for both a physical and emotional lift. Terrell Suggs came to the rescue by returning from Achilles tendon surgery well ahead of schedule, but that was a different time and a very different situation.
Suggs came back right at the time when the Ravens were reeling from the loss of Lewis and star cornerback Lardarius Webb, who both went down in the victory over the Dallas Cowboys at M&T Bank Stadium on Oct. 14. The Ravens lost to the Houston Texans in Suggs' first game back, but are 4-0 since the bye week and the defense has given up the fewest points in the NFL over that period.
Reports that Lewis may resume practicing as soon as Thursday presumably have been based on the fact that he will be eligible to come off the injured reserve list later this week. Head coach John Harbaugh conceded the possibility on that basis Monday, but said Lewis is still rehabbing the injury and his practice status remains undetermined.
Clearly, there is not the same sense of urgency that prevailed when Suggs rushed back. The Ravens are 9-2 and can eliminate the rival Steelers from division title consideration with a victory on Sunday, but Harbaugh indicated that their recent surge in the AFC North and the across-the-board improvement on defense would have no bearing on the timetable for Lewis's return.
"I think it'd be great to get Ray Lewis back,'' Harbaugh said. "All of our guys would welcome Ray back with open arms if and when that happens. In the meantime, Ray is part of our defense - just like Terrell Suggs is part of our defense. So the whole thing is coming together hopefully, better every week. Hey, we could stumble at any time in this league, but adding a great player into the mix is only going to make us better."
Though Lewis is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL and, even at 37, remains among the top linebackers in the game, his lengthy absences due to injury the past two seasons have served to highlight the team's depth at the position. The Ravens were 4-0 last year when he was out for a month with a toe injury and are now 8-1 in the nine games he has missed since the start of the 2011 season.
Jameel McClain has assumed Lewis's role relaying the defensive play calls that come in from the sideline and Dannell Ellerbe has stepped up to establish himself as the other full-time inside linebacker. Meanwhile, Suggs is back to being Suggs on the outside and Paul Kruger is starting to introduce himself to opposing quarterbacks with some regularity.
It's hard to argue with the results over the past six weeks, but Lewis is still the unquestioned leader of the team and his presence on the field is an integral part of the Ravens identity.
When he comes back, however, it may be time for the coaching staff to consider subtly modifying his role to keep him healthy and create the most effective chemistry with McClain, Ellerbe and the rest of the linebacking corps. That's a sensitive subject and any attempt to limit Lewis's playing time will likely meet with resistance, but this would seem like the logical time to broach the subject.
The Ravens have won in spite of themselves at times this season, but the defense seems to be coming together at just the right time to assist in another promising playoff run. It'll be great if Lewis comes back to be a big part of that, but it would not be in his best interests or that of the team for him to come back too soon.