By Kevin York
The past two weeks have been full of Super Bowl story angles on the Harbaughs, Ravens, 49ers and various members of each team. Lost amid all the hype surrounding Ray Lewis’ impending retirement and the crowning of wonderkind of the moment, Colin Kaepernick, as the league’s next great quarterback is a story that, frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t heard much about. It’s the story of the meeting of two inside linebackers, one already established as a Hall of Fame shoo in, potentially the best linebacker of all time, and the other, a promising, young player that reminds many of the former.
I’m talking about Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis.
As Lewis’ career winds to an end in the Super Bowl, Willis has put himself in a position to take over the mantle as the premier inside linebacker in the game. Over the first few years of Willis’ career, we heard this Lewis-Willis comparison many times. The way Willis approached the game, the way he played it, his body, it all reminded us of Ray Lewis. So why haven’t we heard about this passing of the torch the past two weeks?
Perhaps because the workman-like, no frills, stoic approach Willis takes isn’t something that makes a lot of waves among the other showier stories that emerge during Super Bowl week (Chris Culliver anyone?). Or maybe it’s because his 49ers have finally had some other stars emerge, stars that want the attention (looking at you Kaepernick). Or maybe it’s because Willis’ counterpart on the inside of the San Francisco linebacking corps, NaVorro Bowman, also emerged as a prime time player this year.
I don’t have the answer as to why, but in my eyes, the comparison still sticks. So I decided to take it a step further than the eyeball test. Over the first six years of each of their careers, Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis have played the exact same number of games. They each only missed four total games over that span (maybe they have the same deer antler spray guy). It sets things up perfectly to compare the two head to head. Is Willis really deserving of the comparison? How does he stack up to the future Hall of Famer? Can we say that this is a passing of the torch situation?
Lewis (875) vs. Willis (812)
Lewis (698) vs. Willis (621)
Lewis (19.5) vs. Willis (17.5)
Lewis (12) vs. Willis (7)
While Willis’ numbers are good, they don’t quite stack up to those that Lewis put together over his first six seasons. Of course, we’re looking at these numbers in a vacuum, which for some reason, people tend to do a lot when they look at sports stats. One could easily argue that Lewis had much better defensive tackles lining up in front of him over his first six seasons, absorbing blockers, freeing Lewis to make more plays. In fact, this has long been an argument made against Lewis by the Ray-Ray haters. Nonetheless, the fact that Lewis’ numbers are better across the board, make quite a statement.
Given these numbers, I think we can reasonably say that although Willis is a good player, it’s unfair to compare him to Lewis. After six seasons, Lewis had already established himself as the type of player that could be called generational. Willis isn’t at that point, and at this point in his career, about halfway through, I think he’d have to increase his production a bit to reach that status by the end of his career. What could make that even harder is that over the previous two seasons, we’ve started to see his counterpart on the interior of San Francisco’s linebacking corps, NaVorro Bowman, emerge as just as good of a linebacker as Willis himself, possibly even better. In my opinion, Bowman had the better 2012 campaign.
Not quite a passing of the torch situation, but on Sunday we’re in for a treat watching two defenses anchored by stellar, Pro Bowl caliber (at least until the past two seasons in Lewis’ case) inside linebackers. These two solid defenses have been overshadowed a bit by their offenses leading up to the game, but come Sunday, I have a feeling we may be in for a defensive battle.