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Column: Last ride a rocky one for Ray Lewis

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Column: Last ride a rocky one for Ray Lewis

NEW ORLEANS (AP) A lot of this Super Bowl was going to be about Ray Lewis anyway, even before strange tales of deer-antler spray and magic hologram chips came to light. He made sure of it by starting his retirement tour early, and bringing along the dances and inspirational speeches that TV cameras eat up.

If his oratorical skills are great, so, too, is the player. His teammates love him as much for what he does in the locker room as on the field, and fans in Baltimore may one day even erect a statue to his greatness.

Seventeen years fronting one of the most dominating defenses in the NFL should be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame. A Super Bowl win on Sunday would give him a second ring to cherish the rest of his life.

Like the player, though, the act has grown old. When Lewis talks - and he talks incessantly - it's hard to take anything he says seriously.

That was the case Wednesday when he had the stage to himself and everyone in a packed interview room wanted to know: Just what is deer-antler spray and why would you want to take it?

Turns out he wouldn't. And, says Lewis, anyone who suggests otherwise must be doing so with evil intent.

``That's the trick of the devil,'' he said. ``The trick of the devil is to kill, steal and destroy. That's what he comes to do. He comes to distract you from everything you're trying to do.''

Enough. Please. The real trick for Ray Lewis is obfuscation and if he does it well, it's because he's had plenty of practice.

The day before, a reporter had the temerity to ask him about a night 13 years ago in Atlanta that left two men dead after a Super Bowl party and put Lewis in jail on charges of double murder. Old news, maybe, but the circumstances surrounding the deaths have never been fully explained, especially by Lewis.

Instead of invoking the devil, Lewis went the other way.

``Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions,'' he said. ``I just truly feel that this is God's time, and whatever his time is, let it be his will. Don't try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody's story sound right.''

What?

Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and got probation, along with a $250,000 fine from the NFL for violating its conduct policy. The murders remain unsolved after the case against his co-defendants fell apart.

He's been nothing but a model citizen since and as the years go by and memories fade he's become in inspirational figure to those who enjoy his proselytizing and his play on the football field. His teammates respect him as their leader, and his coach seems to regard him as larger than life.

``We have already used him as our team chaplain, so Ray could double up anytime he wants,'' Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. ``He can coach. He can do whatever he wants. I think Ray's got big plans. Ray's that kind of guy and when he's done playing he's always a guy trying to affect people and change the way that people think and make an impact on the world.''

He's certainly making an impact on this Super Bowl, though his last ride has turned out to be bumpier than he might have imagined. Lewis surely understood the murders would be mentioned, but after years of deflecting questions about his connection to them, he was probably also sure it would be no more than a minor annoyance.

It's not so easy with deer-antler spray and pills. Sports Illustrated said Lewis hoped to repair a torn right triceps by seeking help from an Alabama company that says its products contain a banned substance connected to human growth hormone. Lewis denied taking anything illegal, but danced around any connection to the company that also sold its product to golfer Vijay Singh and others.

``To entertain foolishness like that from cowards who come from the outside and try to destroy what we've built, like I just said, it's sad to even entertain it on this type of stage, because this type of stage is what dreams are made of,'' Lewis said. ``This is what kids dream their whole lives, to be up here on these days, stepping in the NFL and saying that I am on the biggest stage ever.''

If it all sounds a bit wacky, it's because it is. What, after all, could be goofier than deer-antler spray and magic chips except maybe the men who believe in them.

But after the Lance Armstrong confession it's hard to believe anything athletes say anymore, or that the NFL is somehow free of PEDs simply because there hasn't been a big scandal in recent years. We don't know what anyone takes, how many tests they've passed or failed, or what they do behind closed doors to build the kind of muscles you need to play in the NFL.

Life as a football player will end for Lewis on Sunday in the Super Bowl, and if he has mixed emotions about it, so must we.

It's hard to root against one of the greatest linebackers ever, a man who has played with the intensity of 10 men for 17 years now, and a man who is a towering figure in the locker room,

After today, it's even harder to root for him.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org orhttp://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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By putting a premium on tight ends, the Ravens have been able to produce a unique offense

By putting a premium on tight ends, the Ravens have been able to produce a unique offense

During the 2019 season, the Baltimore Ravens put together one of the more innovative offenses the league has ever seen. While Lamar Jackson had a big part in making that possible, so did the tight ends.

A three-headed monster consisting of Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle, the tight end group did a little of everything during the season. Last season may have been the year it all came together, but the groundwork began years back. Years prior, tight end was still an important position for Baltimore. 

"We've always placed a premium on the position," General Manager Eric DeCosta told reporters on Tuesday at the NFL Combine.

Before Greg Roman became the offensive coordinator this past campaign, he served as the tight ends coach for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. At that time he already had Boyle, who was taken in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Come 2018, the Ravens began to make the switch to a different look on offense. Having the plan to select Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft, DeCosta, who was the assistant GM at the time, and others knew that the tight end position would become crucial in the offense that would be run with Jackson.

"We've always thought that was an important position and then with our offense, Greg Roman, he's always been a coach that liked a lot of multiple looks," DeCosta said. "And I think tight ends really do factor into that."

Therefore, Baltimore put a premium on a few in the draft. Two that received the highest grades from them were Hurst and Andrews. Hurst was someone the Ravens felt comfortable selecting with the 25th overall pick in 2018. But when Andrews was still available in the third round, it seemed like something that was too good to be true.

"People were surprised when we drafted Hayden and then drafted Mark Andrews," DeCosta told reporters on Tuesday at the NFL Combine. "For us, we had high grades on Hayden and also Mark. Hayden we thought was going to be a really good player. But when Mark was there in the third round it made too much sense for us to not take him."

Adding those two with Boyle, who DeCosta sees as one of the best blocking tight ends in football, the Ravens had a lot to work with. DeCosta also throws Pat Ricard into the equation. Though he came out of Maine as a defensive lineman, he's played valuable snaps at fullback and tight end for Baltimore, specifically in 2019.

The Ravens set out to make an impact at the tight end position, and in 2019 they were able to see the fruits of their labor. Andrews put together a dominant season in which he caught 64 passes for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns. Hurst and Boyle acted as serviceable options, both catching 30 or more passes, while Ricard did a little bit of everything.

For Baltimore's offense to do what it did in 2019, the tight end position had to contribute a great amount. Seeing a vision for the future, the Ravens set out to get those pieces through the draft in recent years. The result? Potentially the most talented and deep tight end group in the NFL and an offense like none other.

"I think Greg Roman has done a great job of taking all those pieces and making us a very innovative and unique offense," DeCosta said.

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Jalen Hurts' defiant NFL Combine comments mirror Lamar Jackson's

Jalen Hurts' defiant NFL Combine comments mirror Lamar Jackson's

It seems kind of laughable now, doesn’t it?

In 2018, questions about Lamar Jackson’s future position were unavoidable. His speed and elusiveness, combined with a spotty track record when it came to accuracy, had teams salivating about his potential at a number of skill positions in the NFL -- quarterback not included.

Now, coming off a unanimous MVP campaign, during which he rewrote record books and established himself as one of the young faces of the next generation of quarterbacks, it’s strange to look back on a time when the majority of football pundits thought his future was at wide receiver or running back.

Jackson’s undeniable success has not only taken the NFL by storm, it’s paved the way for future athletic college quarterbacks to stick at the position.

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, formerly of Alabama and one of the top players in the country, is receiving the same questions at this year’s NFL Combine that Jackson fielded at his. Namely, is he willing to switch positions?

His answer mirrors Jackson’s. He’s a quarterback only, and he has no interest in switching positions to appease an organization with less foresight than what the Ravens had with Jackson.

While Hurts didn’t mention Jackson by name in his reasoning, it’s hard not to draw parallels. Jackson’s 2019 season was one for the history books, and his influence will continue to trickle down to future generations.

Players like Jackson and Hurts haven’t always had the same opportunities to succeed -- or, more importantly, fail -- as other, more “traditional” quarterbacks have had in the course of NFL history. But organizations that are creative and willing to tailor their offensive schemes to the attributes of their quarterbacks are taking advantage of a largely backward-minded league.

Teams that look at Hurts and see a unique skillset full of things he can do, rather than what he can’t, are the way of the future. 

Hurts himself, along with a generation of fellow athletic quarterbacks entering the league over the next few seasons, are betting on this future when they demand to be evaluated as quarterbacks only.

They may have found a way to push through on their own. But Jackson’s incredible year has opened up the path in a major way, making it that much easier for the next crop of unique, talented quarterbacks to shine.

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