Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Albert Lewis—An Elite Corner and Elite Special Teams Player

 By John Turney 
Albert Lewis is one of the players you read about who really improved his draft status at the Senior Bowl. Going into the draft he was considered a developmental player, one who was tall and had great speed (4.35 forty) but was raw and didn't have the technique as some others,

He'd been a tremendous player (mostly a free safety) for Grambling but was considered a mid-round prospect at best. He'd been All-Conference twice and was well known to the scouts but the 1983 NFL draft was loaded with talent, players in the second round would have been first-rounders the year before or after. 

So, even with his impressive work at the Senior Bowl he still only went in the third round (61st overall). He was the ninth corner selected behind Tim Lewis, Gill Byrd, Leonard Smith (played safety in NFL), Darrell Green, Mike Richardson (also considered a safety due to slow speed), James Britt, Cedric Mack, Ray Horton.

He was a second-fastest corner in the draft behind Darrell Green and has a knock of not being the best tackle in college. Still, the Chiefs took him and it turned out to be a great pick with only Green having a better NFL career than any of the others. 

As a Chief be began his career as a nickel back and special teams demon. Early in that first year he was a great kick and punt cover guy who not only made tackles but crushing hits drawing comparisons to former Chiefs special teams god Ceasar Belsar.  

He also was an excellent tackler/hitter according to Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson. Carson, the former Steelers and Rams DC, felt his secondary was the hardest hitting in the NFL and that "Albert is probably the hardest hitter of them all".

Fortunately for Lewis having Carson as his coach he got a lot more playing time than he might have with another coach because Carson was one who used a lot of different schemes and looks that included nickel and dime and even dollar (seven defensive backs) packages that put Lewis in the action.

His play in camp impressed the Cheifs brass that they could ship starting corner, Eric Harris, to the Rams in a deal that brought former Carson pupil Lucious Smith over. Part because Smith knew Carson's scheme and part because Lewis had a hip flexor injury it was Smith who took over at right corner for the departed Harris leaving the nickel spot for Lewis.

In that role, he picked off four passes and also had 3.5 run stuffs coming off the edge. That year NFL FIlms chose a nickel back for their All-Pro team and it was Cowboy Ron Fellows but the pick could have just as easily been Lewis in our view, though Fellows was certainly deserving it's just that Lewis was on that same level. 

The secondary improved in 1983 they picked off 30 passes and gave up 21 touchdowns and had a league-best defensive passer rating (DPR) of 62.6 after being average (15th) in 1982. 

It should be noted that DPR was not used as any kind of statistical measure back then, it was only for quarterbacks. However, author TJ Troup, though what is sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander and reason that if a high passer rating (whatever flaws may exist in that statistic) was good for a quarterback means a low rating must be good for a defense. 

In 1984 left corner wanted more money but the Chiefs thought that Lewis was able to be a starter so rather than paying Green they shipped him to the Rams for a first- and fifth-round pick. Green and the Kansas City media was not happy but the Chiefs were.

The Chiefs didn't miss Green and the secondary was good (67.3 DPR) and was eighth in that category it gave up 19 touchdowns and again pilfered 30 passes and was gaining a reputation as the best young secondary in the NFL with Lewis (24 years old), strong safety Lloyd Burress (27), right corner Kevin Ross (22) and free safety Deron Cherry (25).

In 1985 the team took a step backward from an 8-8 record to 6-10 but the offense was held to 14 points or less in seven of their sixteen games and being shut out twice. The secondary was still very good though the numbers dropped slightly. 

Lewis picked off eight passes Cherry seven and the Cheifs DBs were considered among the best. They also had an excellent three-man front in Art Still, Mike Bell, and Bill Maas. The thing they were weak in was the linebacking crew which is part of the reason the Chiefs played so many sub defenses with five- or six DBs. 

In a 30 front the linebackers need to be particularly strong and in Kansas City, in the mid-190s, they were not. And when they went to four down lineman they didn't have that rush backer who could play DE like an Andre Tipper or a stand-up guy that some others teams had. No Lawrence Tayor or others that were even in a second-team level to the great ones.

Gary Spani was the best backer they had but over the mid-1980s the outside guys were journeyman tyles like Tom Howard, Charles Jackson, Ken McAlister, Calvin Daniels, Ken Jolly, Tom Cofield, Lewis Cooper—you get the drift, these guys were not going to end up on any pro Bowl roster. The Chiefs had to wait until 1989 when they drafted Derrick Thomas to get the kind of play from an outside linebacker they needed in the mid-1980s. 
However, in 1986, the Chiefs did make the playoffs due to the defense, special teams, and the offense at least trying to keep up—they were held to 14 or fewer points only three times as opposed to the seven times in 1985. 

The defense had a DPR of 62.1 and picked off 31 passes (from 1983-86 no team picked off more and only the Bears had a lower DPI for those four seasons). The defense and special teams were a huge help in the point-scoring department for the team with 70 points (10 return touchdowns on returns, picks, fumble recoveries, and blocked kicks).

The special teams were, though, the key to the playoffs. Albert Lewis blocked three punts and deflected another (he blocked it but the ball travel past the line of scrimmage), and tackled a punter (which really should go down as a block but that is another story for another day) and blocked yet another punt in the playoff loss to the Jets. So, including playoffs, that's six de facto blocked punts on the year.

When the Chiefs needed to win to get into the playoffs the special teams scored three touchdowns (a blocked punt, a blocked kick, a kickoff return, and a field goal) to account for all the points and it should be noted that Albert Lewis had a pick in the fourth quarter to seal with win, 24-19. 

For a team that rushed for 91.8 yards a game with a 3.4 yards per carry average and that completed less than 50% of their passes, going 10-6 is kind of a miracle and though others were contributors on special teams Lewis was "the man" on those units.

In 1987 the Chiefs had a new head coach Frank Gansz, who was promoted after John Mackovic was let go based on his special teams units that had been so dominant. Unfortunately, it was a disaster with the Chiefs going 8-22-1 in his two years as the head man. Lewis made the Pro Bowl but didn't make any of the major All-Pro teams but Paul Zimmerman named him to the Sports Illustrated team.

In 1989 Lamar Hunt hired Marty Schottenheimer to take over and he brought Bill Cowher to run the defense with Tony Dungy to coach the defensive backs and his brother Kurt to run the special teams and after two seasons in the doldrums the Chiefs returned to respectability in 1989 and they were a fixture in the playoffs from 1990-93 (and after, even, when Lewis was a Raider).
Now with HOFer Derrick Thomas and DE Neil Smith, the Chiefs had a pass rush to aid the secondary and from 1989-93, Lewis' final five seasons the Chiefs DPR was the NFL's sixth-best over those years and Lewis finally made First-team All-Pro in 1989 and 1990. Prior he'd been Second-team All-Pro in 1986 only. Also in 1990, Joel Buchsbaum wrote that Lewis was one of the best two finest man-to-man cornerbacks in the NFL. 

The injury bug hit Lewis in 1991 (tear in his PCL) and 1992 (broken arm) but he returned healthy in 1993 and had a Pro Bowl-type season but only made Bob Glauber's (now a HOF voter) team.

In 1994 Lewis was a UFA and had he change to finally make some real money and the Raiders knowing Lewis well gave him the bag of cash. Al Davis, always willing to bring in corners as he'd always done (Willie Brown, Monte Jackson, Mike Haynes to name a few) and Lewis was the latest. Lewis was open to staying in Kansas City but they never made an offer so he ended up picking the Raiders over the Falcons and Chargers. 

Over his Raider years, he was not targeted much and didn't pick off a lot of passes but he still graded well considered a high red in 1994 and 1995. In his third Raider season he got his first pick with that team and when it was pointed out to him he wryly answered: "I guess I am not worth a damn".
With the Raiders he'd still play in the slot in sub defenses and recorded 8 of his 12.5 career sacks and was still solid in run plays—
In 1998 Lewis, then 38 years old, moved to free safety since they had rookie Charles Woodson and had brought in Eric Allen (another of the acquisition that Davis loved) going the route of players like Rod Woodson, even Charles Woodson, Aeneas Williams, and others who moved to safety late in his career. 

We are not sure why Lewis never gets Hall of Fame mention (he's never been in the Final 15) when we think scouts of that era would say he was one of the absolute best from 1985-95 or so. Then add in his special teams prowess, likely the best punt blocker ever, it would seem he at least deserves to be in the room (or nowadays on the Zoom).

It's been reported that Jerry Rice said he was the toughest corner he faced, but we've also seen Rice list Deion Sanders and Darrell Green as well. Either way, even if he's in the top three, that's quite a good testimonial. Willie Brown also has praised Lewis' skills as well, at one point calling him the "NFL's best". 

Lewis was an extremely intelligent player and an extremely hard worker in a league with lots of smart and hard-working players. Obsessed with being the best he innovated technique he pored over film of opponents, trained in martial arts, and then implemented them into his defensive back techniques and as well as studied basketball players to do the same thing. He kept notes on opponents wide receivers, tied to find weaknesses and exploit them 

As we mentioned he was not afraid to hit receivers, he was know and a mean-type guy, not in verbiage but in focus and in one-the-field intensity. 

It's likely that the reason is his interception total is not all that impressive compared to some others. In so,e ways he kind of like Lemar Parrish in that the guy opposite him had more interceptions (in this case it's Kevin Ross and Terry McDaniel opposite Lewis) no serious folks at the time thought Parrish was not the best CB on his team and the same is true for Lewis. Ross and McDaniel were good but Lewis was great even though he had fewer picks than those two when they were paired with Lewis. 

We don't know if Lewis can be one of those guys the Hall of Fame voters finally consider and he breaks through to the Final 15 (we find it hard to believe there are 15 modern-era players that had better or more impactful careers) but we hope so. 

There is no reason this guy should go into the senior "swamp". He was just too good for that. 

He checks all the boxes.

Career honors—


Career stats—

3 comments:

  1. Yeah really an outstanding player. He is just like Mike Haynes in terms of technique.

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  2. Lewis would be in the Hall of Fame already if I was the sole decider of such a thing.

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  3. ....there are folks who actually believe I know something about the history of pass defense, and defensive backs; that said, Albert Lewis makes my team....for a moment----think of how many great defensive backs there have been and he MAKES my team. his season of '85 should have gotten everyone's attention with 25 passes defensed, and 8 interceptions.

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