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For 49ers, it's all about their team rather than individuals

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 - 9:17 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 - 5:18 pm

SANTA CLARA – Like the 49ers, the Ravens have a sign in their headquarters that reads, "The team, the team, the team." But this season, and especially in the playoffs, everything's been about "Ray, Ray, Ray."

Baltimore's postseason run has corresponded with Ray Lewis' return to the lineup from an October triceps tear, and the inside linebacker who oozes charisma and has perhaps the most powerful presence of any NFL player in the last quarter century was the top story last week as the Ravens got ready for the Super Bowl.

There was Lewis on Wednesday demanding that the Lombardi Trophy be removed from a CBS photo shoot featuring Ravens players.

"Don't ever take pictures with nothing that's not yours, nothing that you haven't earned," Lewis, 37, said in his seductive half-whisper. "When we hold that Lombardi, whoever holds that Lombardi next Sunday, you've earned it when you touch it."

When Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked how discipline will be maintained – curfews, bed checks, etc. – in New Orleans, he caught sight of Lewis on the other side of the room.

"I know that our leaders – starting with this guy right over here – are going to be a big part of that," Harbaugh said.

After the Ravens' devastating loss to the New England Patriots in last year's AFC Championship Game, Lewis gave a memorable speech in the visitors' locker room – "This right here makes us stronger," he told his teammates – that has been recalled recently and credited for propelling Baltimore into this season.

The 17-year veteran has said he will retire after next Sunday's game, and his teammates want nothing more than to give Lewis the greatest going-away present possible – a second Super Bowl ring.

"We knew that we wanted to make the playoffs in order for Ray to have a chance to come back," safety Ed Reed said. "And obviously, when Ray came back – he's just that engine, he's that motor that's going to go all the time."

In another locker room, another No. 52 spoke in front of his teammates before last Sunday's NFC Championship Game. Patrick Willis' theme in Atlanta was that there was a notion that the 49ers were his team. That's not true, he said, and he didn't want that. He wanted it to be about everyone.

The speech mimicked the famous one made by former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler in 1983, one that both Harbaugh brothers treat as gospel when it comes to their own squads. "No man is more important than the team," Schembechler said in part. "No coach is more important than the team. The team, the team, the team."

Said cornerback Carlos Rogers of Willis' speech: "He said to make it about this team and not one individual person. The Ravens have a Ray Lewis thing where he helped the team come back and do this, he helped the defense do that. (Willis) doesn't want any of that to be about him. It's about the whole team."

Willis was compared to Lewis as soon as he was drafted 11th overall in 2007. He wore the same number, flew around the field like Lewis did when he first entered the league and was the center of the 49ers defense.

The difference is one of notoriety; Lewis has lived in the limelight since his time at the University of Miami.

Willis is quieter, more reluctant to take center stage and is more willing to take advice than give it.

"Ray's one guy that loves to give wisdom and knowledge," Willis said. "I'm a guy that loves to listen."

Beginning last year, Willis took on a decidedly less glorious role on the defense, one that allowed fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman to rack up tackles while Willis chased the opponents' top tight ends in pass coverage.

Willis typically is the player who, like Lewis, rallies his team around him before kickoff. But he's not automatically looked upon as the team's spokesman.

When asked who he thought was the leader in the locker room, second-year player Aldon Smith said there were several, then ticked off Willis, Rogers, Justin Smith and Frank Gore, among others.

There is no question who is at the center of the Ravens' orbit.

San Francisco's Tavares Gooden, who spent three years in Baltimore, is the only linebacker to have played with both Lewis and Willis. He also played at the University of Miami and wore Lewis' No. 52 there.

One man, especially a linebacker, usually isn't enough to drive a team to a Super Bowl title. But Gooden noted that Lewis, even when he wasn't playing, has gotten the Ravens this far. And he's done it before.

"Ray has been there," Gooden said of the Super Bowl. "So anything that Ray says, of course, is going to motivate anybody. It's very powerful. And him being the best linebacker to play the game, that right there gives him a little more power."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows



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