Ray Lewis squares up on the question as if it were a helpless running back. How good can he be as an NFL analyst? There is no hesitation in his voice. He is set to invade your home this September.
“I honestly think the sky is the limit for me,” says Lewis, who was hired by ESPN in February, after he capped his 17-year Ravens career with a Super Bowl victory. "A lot of people have only been introduced to my football mentality—and it is hard to get people to understand the football mentality unless you've lived it. I think I am totally different when I'm not thinking about battle, and I'm going to try to be the best at this. When people learn my personality and actually get into my head, they are going to be surprised by the way I think on an everyday and every-second basis."
Every network with an NFL contract maintains a list of current coaches and players who would make good broadcasters. Given his passion for the sport and his skill at oratory, Lewis has long rated high on those lists—some television insiders believe he could do for the NFL what Charles Barkley did for NBA telecasts. Lewis met with other networks, but ESPN appealed to him for a variety of reasons, including the prospect of non-Sunday work assignments. One of his requirements for a broadcasting career was flexibility in his schedule so he can attend the football games of his son, Ray Lewis III, who'll be a freshman running back/defensive back this fall at his father's alma mater, the University of Miami.
Lewis's ESPN schedule affords him that option, but he will be busy. He'll travel to the Monday Night Football site each week to serve as an analyst for Monday Night Countdown. He'll also work eight Sundays at ESPN's studios in Bristol, Conn., appearing on the network's Sunday NFL Countdown pregame show during the season. He'll debut the morning of Sunday, Sept. 8, when he joins the cast of Countdown. Lewis will be in Landover, Md., the following day for his Monday Night Countdown spot, leading into the Eagles-Redskins game at FedEx Field.
I would come from the most honest point ever. Period. I don’t care if it is wrong or right. If you are supposed to catch the pass, catch the pass.
In June, Lewis started working at his home in Baltimore with an ESPN talent coach, learning how to sit for a broadcast, how to breathe and pause properly, and how to modulate his voice levels at the right moments. Those are mechanics, and all can be taught. But how does Lewis view delivering criticism when criticism is warranted? The best former athletes in the booth—ESPN's Jay Bilas and NBC's Cris Collinsworth, for instance—always say what they see, knowing it may cost them relationships.
"I would come from the most honest point ever," Lewis says. "Period. I don’t care if it is wrong or right. If you are supposed to catch the pass, catch the pass. But it is a human mistake and not the end of the world. Everyone has ups and downs, flaws, wrongs and rights. I'm not there to judge. I'm there to pay attention and give insight on the game and on each player and coach."
And what about controversial issues away from the field? Those are usually left to the pregame shows, as NFL television partners are reluctant to discuss such matters during game broadcasts. That means Lewis will be asked to address the spate of NFL arrests this offseason, most notably the Aaron Hernandez murder charge. He says he will be cautious in talking about individual cases. "What you are comfortable with is what you know," he says. "If you don't know something, don't speak about it. Bad rumors and bad messages get out when people identify with something they have no clue about. You can only speak from true experience. If a kid is not doing the right freaking things off the field, that is very simple: He needs to figure it out. He needs to get around the right crowd. He needs to have more balance. Those things are very simple, I think, to be comfortable talking about."
Network directors and producers loved Ray Lewis because the fire and brimstone he displayed on the field carried over to production meetings with television personnel during his career. Will such animation and emoting play the same on television? Lewis' success or failure as a broadcaster will be determined less by style and more on what kind of study he puts into the league as a whole—and into players on both sides of the football.
Lewis will also need to prove to viewers that he can be critical when it's warranted, and not merely another assembly line ex-jock in an industry famous for coddling former teammates and the league. Will he have a Charles Barkley-like impact on the NFL? No. But I've spoken with enough people at various networks to believe that Lewis can be very good if he puts in the work. Now it's up to him.
Of course, nothing is simple about Lewis' past, including the double homicide in Atlanta 13 years ago for which he was originally charged with two counts of murder. In exchange for his testimony against two men who were with Lewis that night, the charges against him were reduced and he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Asked if he should be a part of any studio conversation about Hernandez, Lewis says, "It would only be to give a brief explanation on what you know. Because if you are talking about getting into the case—what happened, how it happened—that's the judge's job, that's the police's job. Having gone through the things I have been through, what I learned from that is everybody has something they want to say, and 80 percent of them are illiterate. You have to be careful with it. You can't speak about something you do not know. Give your opinion, and keep it moving from there."
The 38-year-old former linebacker says he will not read media stories about his broadcast work, nor will he follow what people are saying about him on Twitter. "I don't pay attention to everyone's opinion, good or bad, because it is irrelevant to me," Lewis says. "You have to put in your work, put in your time, do it as passionately as you can, and love what you are doing so it doesn't feel like work. I want to have fun with this. I know there will be naysayers, but if you get caught up in that, you will drive yourself crazy."
Lewis is strictly an ESPN studio host for the moment (he will likely appear on other ESPN platforms, including radio), but senior coordinating producer Seth Markman, the executive who oversees the network's NFL studio shows and who was instrumental in bringing Lewis on board, says he is strongly considering using Lewis to work the opening round of the 2014 draft. "I don't want him to have to know 300 players, but if I told him to study the top 25 defensive players, I think it could be really special," Markman says.
Lewis loves the idea. "Throughout my career I paid attention more to college games than NFL games," he says. "Saturdays were the highlight of my freaking day. Learning college guys and watching those guys' journey is fun. I bumped into [South Carolina defensive end] Jadeveon Clowney at the ESPYs, and I was telling him things beyond the play he's best known for. He was like, 'You saw all that?' I was like, 'Yes, I watch everything.' "
He'll be watching more pro football than ever. And TV insiders who've seen him in action are confident that Lewis' knowledge and love of the game—evident every time he stepped on the field—will translate to a role in front of the camera. "Ray Lewis has an intensity and a way of communicating that are very infectious," says CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, whose staffers spent countless hours in production meetings with Lewis during his playing career. "He is a bigger-than-life personality, very articulate and [has] an incredible passion for the game. I think he'd be a terrific studio analyst or game analyst."
Lewis has a four-year contract with ESPN, but he says he's approaching his new job the way he did the latter part of his football career: as a year-to-year proposition. "I plan on being the same way on the set as I was in football," Lewis says. "Nothing changes. I remain who I am as a person. The only difference is, I don't have to put on a helmet anymore. Viewers will now get to see the total package of what I did, how I did it, why the game is where it is, and why players are doing what they're doing. You don't get that a lot. You might get it in snippets in a pregame show or an interview, but it's hard to get that every week.