IRVING, Texas- Since the Dallas Cowboys won their last Super Bowl in 1996, the organization and the league has changed dramatically. The Cowboys have had literally hundreds of different players on their roster, including 12 quarterbacks start games for them, and they've called two different stadiums home.
As far as the NFL goes, there have been 10 different organizations that have been crowned champions since the post-Cowboy Super Bowl era. They have had two separate commissioners and myriad of rule changes.
But there is one thing that has certainly not changed in the NFL since 1997: Ray Lewis is still suiting up every Sunday and leading his defense out on the field. Love him or hate him, perhaps no player in the history of the game has dominated the league for as long a period as Baltimore's middle linebacker.
On Sunday, Lewis will line up against the Cowboys in the midst of his 17th season. Constantly producing great numbers and never one to shy away from attention, he has been in the spotlight for each of those 17 years. Jason Garrett spent the beginning of Lewis' career as a player and the eventual end of it as a head coach. He talked about what Lewis has accomplished in the NFL.
"He's just one of the greatest players that this league has ever seen," Garrett said. "As a football fan, more than a coach and a former player, I just admire the guy a great deal. I admire his spirit, his energy, his demeanor, his passion for the game and he makes a ton of plays. He makes a ton of plays in the running game, a ton of plays in the passing game. He's been doing it for a long, long time."
Lewis' career has been defined by production and intensity. He has recorded an amazing 2,586 career tackles, and is the only player in NFL history with more than 40 sacks and 30 interceptions.
Despite already being in the prime of his career, there are still those who first heard of him when he became involved in a controversial murder case in 2000. The details of the situation are sketchy, but two groups, one with which Lewis was involved, got into an altercation that eventually led to the stabbing and murder of two people. Lewis was never a suspect in the murder, but by misleading police officers, he was convicted of obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to 12 months probation, which was the maximum sentence for a first-time offender.
While Lewis was filling up headlines off the field, he was also having one of his most dominating seasons on it. In 2001, he led the Ravens to their first ever Super Bowl title and took home the big game's MVP honors.
Since that time, Lewis has accepted his reputation as perhaps the most intimidating figure in the NFL, although he now is also seen as a family man and motivational speaker to both his teammates and those in his community. Cowboy special teams contributor and backup linebacker Alex Albright talked about what Lewis has meant to the NFL for young players like him.
"I think it's not uncommon for a lot of people to idolize Ray Lewis for the production that he's had over the years," Albright said. "He's a phenomenal linebacker. When you think linebacker, you think him and Brian Urlacher. Those guys are paving the way right now. They're the older guys right now, and they're the guys I grew up idolizing. "
Garrett echoed those sentiments on Wednesday when he talked about the impact Lewis has had on his own team and the entire NFL.
"He's unique," Garrett said. 'This is one of the great players ever to play in this league. Certainly one of the best players of his generation at any position. … He just plays with an infectious spirit. There's no question that it permeates to that entire football team."
At 37-years-old, Lewis is now trying to keep up in a young man's game. Intimidation can only get him so far. Last season, he recorded only 95 tackles, a drop off for his standards. It was the only season of his career in which he played more than six games that he recorded less than 100 tackles.
On Wednesday, Lewis was asked how he would respond to outsiders who suggest that he has "slipped" in his 17th season. His response was immediate.
"Keep watching," Lewis suggested. "I've heard that my whole life. … I don't even pay no attention to that. I just keep rolling."
Quarterback Tony Romo isn't buying it either. Romo balked at the suggestion that Lewis was anything less than the dominating linebacker he has been for years.
"I see the same Ray Lewis," Romo said. "He understands the game almost like a quarterback does in where the strengths and weaknesses are of not only the offense, but his own defense. He has a great knack for getting himself in the position where he needs to be to help everybody. He looks real good on tape."
Lewis also went on to explain how unique professional sports are in terms of perceptions of athletes as time goes on.
"The greater you become the more people look for weaknesses," Lewis said. "In any other realm, you're résumé speaks for itself."
If the Cowboys are scouting the Ravens based on Lewis' history, then they will be in for a long day on Sunday. Few players have accomplished more in this league.
Even after 17 years and a dip in production, there is one thing that remains a constant since way back in 1997: When Lewis lines up on the other side of an offense, staring down a quarterback, it is hard to not just assume he is going to make a play and that he will probably finish it off with a hard hit.
It's hard to win in this league if you don't have a certain level of respect for your opponent, but Ray Lewis' presence on the Ravens demands an even higher level of consideration based off his accomplishments and reputation. Respect for Lewis won't be all it takes to limit his impact on the game, but it's a good start and the Cowboys clearly have that in mind.
"When you think about guys that have been constants for that Ravens' defense, for a lot of years he's been in the middle of it," Garrett said. "They've had a ton of great football teams over the years and he's been a huge part of them. What he does on the field, what he does off the field, he's been a great leader for that team and for that whole community. I admire him, we admire him a great deal."