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.
Both Reid and McCarthy said that even though Lewis has been around the Redskins for just 2 1/2 weeks and has had limited time to study the playbook, film and dissect players' respective skills, they see no reason he couldn't step right in and be a successful play-caller Monday night when the Redskins play host to the Eagles.
While conventional thinking suggests Lewis's extensive time running West Coast systems gives him a head start in understanding Zorn's playbook, it was Lewis himself who pointed out the many variations and wrinkles that have evolved since Walsh first put chalk on the blackboard.
"They call it the West Coast offense, but I've coached in San Francisco's West Coast, Green Bay's West Coast, Minnesota's West Coast, Detroit's West Coast. They're all a little different," Lewis said earlier this month on his first day on the job. "I've just got to come in here, get a feel for what Jim's teaching. It won't be the same West Coast.
"It evolves, everybody puts their little touch to it. But basically the foundation of the offense stays the same. I know what routes should look like, I know when routes are run right, I know when running backs are hitting the hole. I know the basic things it takes to be successful in this offense."Different pieces
The Redskins' personnel doesn't match what Lewis had in the past. There's no Favre, Jerry Rice or Randy Moss on the roster. Lewis would prefer a big wide receiver who can make plays and stretch the field. He'd prefer a speedy tailback coming out of the backfield, and a quarterback who efficiently goes through his progressions as he drops back.
But, Lewis points out, despite Zorn's wrinkles and the team's personnel, "the way you teach routes hasn't changed. The deep-over is still the deep-over. The dagger route is still the dagger. The shadow cross, the drive route -- they call it different things, but it's still the same route. I've taught it for years."
Routes, in fact, are Lewis's specialty. He's not as familiar with pass-protection schemes, blitz pickup packages and doesn't consider the running game his area of expertise. His strength has always been working with receivers.
"He'll definitely help settle down Jason [Campbell], and he'll hold those receivers accountable," said former Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman. "I've watched their games, and a lot of times you see receivers running extra routes to try to get open. That's not what the West Coast is all about. The offense is predicated on guys just running to their spot and giving the quarterback a chance to go through his progressions and make a play. You're supposed to run to a spot and sit in your spot. That's it."
Most of the Redskins' offensive weapons predate Zorn's arrival and the installation of the West Coast offense.
"The only problem that I could foresee with Sherm is, with him, that's what you have to run -- the West Coast," said Cris Carter, the former Vikings wide receiver who played for two years under Lewis and now serves as an analyst for ESPN. "You can't be deviating. But if that's what you want and that's what your guys are best suited for -- a West Coast system -- he can help you with that because he knows it as well as anyone, no doubt."
While the midseason hiring in Washington inspired jokes across the league -- in his only meeting with reporters, Lewis revealed he had to cancel a bingo appointment at a senior citizen center when he accepted the job -- no one familiar with Lewis's coaching history laughs at the knowledge he brings to the job. Similarly, the tall task in front of him, calling plays less than three weeks after arriving in town, is serious business.
Speaking about the challenge he faced, Lewis offered a slight smile on Day One of his new job: "It's gonna be a little longer than bingo."
Staff writers Jason Reid and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.