Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Michael Lewis Dilemma

Well, I hope to get back to blogging here shortly, and possibly even blog about non-Eagles topics! But I have to write this all down just to get my own thoughts in order.

I often imagine myself in the shoes of Joe Banner, and make personnel judgements on the Eagles. Earlier in the season, I wrote that the Eagles need to re-sign Michael Lewis, one of only two starters (Donte' Stallworth is the other) who are not under contract for next season.

But I am starting to see now what the Eagles must have been seeing all along. Lewis is struggling, giving up huge pass plays on consecutive weeks. The other NFL teams are noticing, and are designing plays to isolate him in pass coverage. When I think back on last year, it's possible the isolation began even then, as weaknesses in his game have slowly come to light.

Some factors to keep in mind about Michael Lewis:

  • He went to the Pro Bowl in 2004.

  • He's considered one of the best run-support and blitzing strong safeties in the league.

  • He has all the physical tools to be a great safety.

  • By all accounts, he is a hard worker, a high-character guy, and a great teammate.

So what has changed for Lewis since his Pro Bowl year? Has he slowed down? Is he injured? Does he lack confidence?

No...the answer is simple: QB pressure.

In 2004, the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, and part of what fueled that season was a defense that was at the top of the NFL in sacks. Michael Lewis was aggressive, jumping routes, and breaking up passes in addition to his solid run defense and blitzing.

Fast forward to last year, when his pass coverage started to come into question, and you'll see Michael Lewis playing the same way as 2004, while the Eagles defense falls to near the bottom of the NFL in sacks. Now, he jumps those same routes, plays his same aggressive style, but the QB has time to wait for the receiver to make an extra move and simply throws it over Lewis' head.

Sound familiar? It should, because the last two weeks, the two big plays he's given up were carbon copies of that formula. On both the 57-yard pass interference penalty and the TD to Joe Horn, Lewis anticipates the ball being thrown early, but instead the QB is not pressured at all and has time to wait for the WR to make another move. In both cases, Bledsoe and Brees had a full six seconds to wait for the receiver to get open. Although Michael Lewis is technically responsible for both plays, it is hard to imagine a strong safety in the NFL who could cover Terry Glenn or Joe Horn for six seconds. It just doesn't happen.

Lewis is better than his overhyped counterpart in Dallas, Roy Williams. He's better than a lot of strong safeties in this league, who would have fallen victim to both plays...they were perfectly designed, and perfectly executed, while the defense generated no pass rush at all to counteract them.

It is tough to ask a guy to change the way he plays, when the way he plays took him to a Pro Bowl just a couple seasons back. But then again, you can't make excuses for a guy forever. He's now a five-year veteran, and should be smart enough to recognize these situations better. There's a time to be aggressive, and a time where simply reading and reacting is a more prudent play. If he hasn't figured this out in five years, what makes anyone think he'll start to figure it out in year six? What good are all his tools if teams can exploit him for an easy six points every week?

So what do you do as the Eagles? Do you keep him in the starting lineup and sign him to a modest contract, expecting his mental mistakes to grow fewer with experience? Or do you give up on him and start Sean Considine, a promising safety project out of Iowa? This is one of the more interesting personnel dilemmas I can recall for the Eagles. Usually, in my mind at least, these decisions are cut and dried, but I'm undecided on this one.

I'm really pulling for Michael Lewis. It would be much better for the Eagles if he returned to his Pro Bowl form, while Considine waits to take Dawkins' spot in two years. But would I resign him right now? Probably not. I need to see that he can fight through these struggles and learn to play smart. If he does that, his price will go up, but I'm willing to pay for a guy of his talents and character.


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