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It's a circus, but Lewis is no clown

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, October 22, 2009

While we universally stare in disbelief at the Washington Redskins and wonder what they're doing, let's not make the mistake of thinking Sherman Lewis is some kind of clown. He isn't. This certainly isn't the way Lewis envisioned one day calling the shots, leaving retirement to take over somebody else's team. But because the phone never rang when it should have, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, even 20 years ago when Lewis was head coaching material, Lewis answered when he heard it, when the Redskins inexplicably called.

Throughout the 1990s, Sherman Lewis was a top-drawer coach in the NFL, one of the best offensive assistants in the league. In 1998, in a column for this newspaper, I wrote rather angrily about Lewis being passed over for head coaching vacancies despite having all of the, uh, necessities to do the job. One of the people I talked to about Lewis was the great Bill Walsh, author of the modern-day West Coast offense and Lewis's mentor.

Part of what I wrote that day included, "[Lewis] has been a coordinator for the Packers the last four years. Lewis learned Bill Walsh's West Coast offense before both the head coaches in this Super Bowl, [Mike] Holmgren and Mike Shanahan. Walsh has said Lewis has had more experience teaching the West Coast offense than any of his pupils. And . . . Lewis has experience as both a defensive coordinator [at Michigan State] and an offensive coordinator in the pros.

"There's literally nothing an assistant coach can do that Sherm Lewis hasn't already done . . . He's like a Ph.D. of football."

Remember, a lot has happened in the NFL over the last 10 years. There was no equivalent of Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris, a black man with no pedigree who is a head coach at 33 years old or Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, hired as a head coach at 34. Morris and Tomlin spent almost no time waiting in line, almost no time wondering, "What's wrong with my résumé?"

There was no Rooney Rule to help Sherm Lewis get an interview, so he sat. I asked Holmgren, then the coach of the Green Bay Packers, whether he thought Lewis had the stuff to be a head coach. There was some suggestion then that Lewis wasn't calling the plays that season for Brett Favre (how ironic). And Holmgren said rather testily in support of his lieutenant, "First of all, that is a lame reason. Anybody who uses that reason for not hiring a coach is really scrambling, in my opinion. There have been a lot of coaches who have been hired that haven't called the plays. He is the offensive coordinator. He conducts the offensive meetings. He speaks to the offensive team. In essence, he is the head coach of the offense."

Lewis did call the plays for the Packers when Holmgren left and in Minnesota after that and did a pretty darn good job some of the time. Some of the time he didn't, which is why the head coach of the Vikings, Dennis Green, stripped him of play-calling at one point.

Either way, as we know now, Lewis never got that head coaching job, despite the definitive endorsement from someone as respected as Holmgren. Not long thereafter, the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule, the provision that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate before making a coaching hire. Anybody who wonders why the league even needs such a rule should look no further than Lewis. The rule didn't benefit him directly; at 67, Lewis, is 30 years older than Tomlin is now. But the first person I think of when somebody mentions the rule is Sherm Lewis.

He is probably five times more qualified, or was before he retired five years ago, to call plays than Jim Zorn . . . just not in this situation. Nobody should be brought in over the coach to call plays, especially when the head coach was a quarterback and hired specifically to be the offensive coordinator originally, which we presume includes calling the plays. It's moronic. It's emasculating.

Zorn said Monday he will "comply" with management's request that Lewis call the plays, but he has to hate the very notion of it. I agree absolutely with former coach Tony Dungy, who knows Lewis well, who said Zorn simply should have refused. That would have forced Daniel Snyder to fire Zorn, and he presumably could have collected his $6 million over the final two years of the contract, which is why he can't possibly quit.

Concern over Zorn aside, it's difficult to imagine this working, because Lewis was calling bingo in Detroit and not exactly paying rapt attention to the Redskins' personnel. Why would you ask somebody who has been out of football for years to familiarize himself with the players while taking over something as complex as calling the plays? How can he possibly know the tendencies of the players, who does what well or not so well, who's best in the fourth quarter, what the already shell-shocked quarterback feels most and least comfortable doing?

It's all a mess, not what Sherm Lewis deserved based on his years of service as a professional assistant and certainly not what the team needs as it tries to discover a professional offense on a Monday night against a hated rival with the pressure on every player, every coach, everybody associated with the Washington Redskins. That's a lot of pressure on a man who two weeks ago was calling random numbers under no stress whatsoever, who must have thought his time had come and gone.

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