Peers say Lewis could bring spark to Redskins' offense

Sherman Lewis successfully called plays, a former Packers tight end said.
Sherman Lewis successfully called plays, a former Packers tight end said. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

A decade ago, Sherman Lewis's name was bandied about as a potential head coach -- in a time before the NFL's Rooney Rule and before fellow African American coaches such as Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin hoisted Super Bowl trophies. One of the biggest knocks on Lewis, the Redskins' offensive consultant who is taking over play-calling duties for embattled Coach Jim Zorn, was that he didn't call his own plays.

"Everyone knows that Mike [Holmgren] did the play-calling while Sherm was here," said Mark Chmura, the former Green Bay tight end. "But Sherm did a lot of the installation, which was important, a lot of the hands-on work."

Chmura went on to say that Holmgren shouldn't receive 100 percent of the credit for the Packers' play-calling in the 1990s, a period in which Holmgren, Lewis and Brett Favre helped take the Packers to the playoffs six times, twice reaching the Super Bowl and, in 1996, winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"There were times when Sherm did take over the play-calling, and we didn't even know about it," Chmura said. "There are times on offense that you get stale, times when you're in the game and you see something isn't flowing well -- but then suddenly, it starts clicking. We'd find out the after the game or later on Monday that Sherm had taken over play-calling. Mike was smart to realize that maybe he didn't have it on that day."

Those who have played and coached around Lewis are effusive in their praise, and most play down concerns about Lewis's limited experience as a play-caller and are quick to note that he should have been an NFL head coach.

"I loved having Sherm Lewis on my staff. He was terrific," said Steve Mariucci, who hired Lewis as an offensive coordinator in Detroit. "He knows that system so well. . . . He has great knowledge of that kind of offense, a lifetime of work in it."

"Sherm's a sharp guy," said Philadelphia Eagles Coach Andy Reid, who was the Packers' quarterbacks coach under Lewis. "He was a very good offensive coordinator. He was very instrumental in my career. He shared a lot of things with me about the West Coast offense."

Several younger NFL coaches heap praise on Lewis for their own development as coaches.

"Any time a young football coach has a chance to be around Sherman Lewis, you definitely take it all in," Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. "The opportunity I had to be around him as a young coach, pick his brain and learn his version of the offense, you couldn't have asked for much more as a young coach."

Longtime disciple

The famed Bill Walsh coaching tree -- the roots from which the popular West Coast offense has grown -- includes accomplished coaches such as Holmgren, Sam Wyche, Dennis Green, Jim Fassel and George Seifert. But the only coach currently in the NFL who worked with Walsh -- who actually learned the system from the feet of the master with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s -- is Lewis, 67, whom the Redskins plucked out of retirement on Oct. 6 to salvage Zorn's offense.

A former halfback at Michigan State -- Lewis finished third in Heisman Trophy voting in 1963, losing to Roger Staubach -- he coached at his alma mater from 1969 to '82 before joining Walsh's staff in San Francisco. Despite 22 years running the West Coast offense on his NFL résumé, the veteran coach enters the coaches' booth on Monday night with limited experience as a play-caller.

He didn't take over play-calling duties in Green Bay until after Holmgren left for Seattle. The Packers went 8-8 in 1999, and Lewis was among several coaches let go after the season. He played a big role in calling plays in Minnesota in 2000-01 with mixed results -- during one game, Green stripped Lewis of the responsibility at halftime and called the second-half plays himself. And then in Detroit from 2002-03, Mariucci was the primary play-caller. When Mariucci was stripped of those duties, it was the team's quarterbacks coach who took over the play-calling, not Lewis.

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