OWINGS MILLS, Md. - Whether you hear it or not, the clock is always ticking.
It was ticking when Ray Lewis was a rookie, when the Ravens were starting a new incarnation in Baltimore.
It was ticking when Lewis guided them to the Super Bowl in 2001, it hasn’t stopped ticking in the 11 years since.
It started ticking as soon as Ed Reed stepped on the field in 2002, when Reed seemed to tackle anything that moved and to pick off every pass in his vicinity.
It’s still ticking. Only now the ticking is too loud to ignore.
And now when Lewis and Reed talk, they speak like men who know they have more football behind them than in front of them.
Reed carries with him a sort of weariness, a body constantly fighting injuries after 10 seasons.
He came up with the interception that sealed the Ravens’ win over the Texans last week and set up today’s AFC Championship game against the Patriots. It was his eighth interception in 10 postseason games. It put him in the same company as Rod Woodson, Darren Sharper, and Deion Sanders.
There was a day when Reed was the young ballhawk staring at those names as though they were historical figures.
But at that moment, he conceded he was becoming one of them, and that the day would soon come when there would be another younger, greater safety.
Lewis is as close to an action hero as there is in the NFL. Maximus in the coliseum.
If he’s at the point where there’s light at the end of the tunnel, Lewis is staring it down.
“Everybody here has to appreciate that great warriors fight until the end,’’ he said. “Those are the stories that you’ll always remember.’’
How close they are to the end is uncertain. But they realize that at this stage in their careers, getting this close to the Super Bowl gives them a precious opportunity they have to take advantage of.
It’s something Lewis has stressed to his teammates all week, according to running back Ray Rice.
“It’s like he preaches,’’ Rice said. “These moments don’t come by too often, and you have to embrace every moment that you have with this team.’’
In 1996, there was a debate in Baltimore over whether the Ravens would be better served going with Pepper Johnson as their middle linebacker rather than Lewis.
Johnson had won two Super Bowls with the Giants.
Lewis was a rookie.
Before the franchise made the move from Cleveland to Baltimore, Johnson had led the Browns in tackles in 1995-96.
Lewis was a rookie.
Johnson was a proven leader, respected in the locker room, and almost never let an injury keep him out of a game or a practice.
Lewis was a rookie.
But the front office had used one of its two first-round picks to select Lewis.
They then invested $5 million in him over five years.
And there was something intangible about Lewis that made the decision a difficult one.
“He has an aura about him,’’ Ozzie Newsome, the team’s director of football operations, said at the time.
They decided to release Johnson and go with Lewis.
That the decision wasn’t entirely popular at the time is ironic 16 years later with Lewis and the Ravens a game away from reaching the second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Lewis didn’t just become the leader of the defense. The franchise is made in his image.
Since he’s been there, the defense is consistently frightening, ranked in the top three in eight of Lewis’s seasons and in the top 10 in all but four.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the Ravens without Lewis.
Eventually, the time will come. Lewis said he can’t see it coming in the near future. Asked if the Ravens win last week was the last game he would play in M&T Bank Stadium, he responded, “Unless them skies spread and God himself come and tell me stop, no. Football is too fun for me man. I love it too much to ever even put that thought in my head and ever disrespect - not just me and my craft - but disrespect my team. I never thought of it.
“Whenever God says time is enough, then it’s enough, but when you’re having the fun I’m having and you’re playing at the level I’m playing at - do it until you can’t do it no more.’’
Desire still present
Two years ago around this time, Reed seriously considered leaving the game.
He weighed the beating his body had taken - hip, ankle, and groin injuries took their toll - but more significant was a nerve impingement in his neck and left shoulder that he had been playing through for years. He said he was “50-50’’ on retiring.
He looked at players around the league who’ve had to undergo neck surgery, and asked himself if it was worth it to keep playing.
His résumé will never be questioned. He’s been to eight Pro Bowls and has led the league in interceptions three times.
“He’s one of the premier players in football,’’ Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He has been since he got into the league, from Day One. He does everything.’’
When his production seemed to slip the criticism came. But no one was more critical of Reed than himself.
The neck and shoulder injuries, he acknowledged, have forced him to change the way he plays. His hits are less violent, less explosive. He doesn’t lead with his shoulder any more. It’s more wrap ups and take downs.
He could count the number of missed tackles he finished the season with.
Along with Lewis, he is a part of the defense’s DNA.
“He’s taught me so much about this game and life,’’ said cornerback Lardarius Webb. “He helped me out so much.
“He’s our leader, he keeps us focused. Just him being on the field is the best thing we could possible have on our defense.’’
The one thing that’s eluded Reed in his 10 seasons is a trip to the Super Bowl.
“I’ll worry about the legacy when I’m done,’’ he said. “Right now all I can do is prepare myself and be ready come Sundays and whatever happens on Sundays it happens. After it’s all done and gone from the game we’ll let y’all and the fans tell what the legacy’s about.’’
Beyond being the only original Raven still standing, Lewis is the only one in the current locker room with a Super Bowl ring.
Occasionally, he’ll bring it out.
“Ray, from time to time, will remind guys as a whole and individually about what it takes to achieve what he achieved in 2000, and share his wisdom and knowledge about that,’’ said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
It took Lewis four years to reach the Super Bowl. Since then, the closest he’s been was the 2009 AFC Championship game when the Ravens lost to the Steelers.
That was three years ago. The clock’s still ticking.
“Everybody gets more and more mature and understands how huge these opportunities are,’’ Lewis said. “And, most importantly, how few they are.’’