Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers signed Marcedes Lewis to complement Jimmy Graham in a makeover of the tight end position.
Then-coach Mike McCarthy was thrilled to land Lewis, who had been released by Jacksonville after starting 157 games in 12 seasons.
“He’s obviously a big man, but he’s powerful,” McCarthy said early in training camp last year. “His ability to cut and anchor on a block and maintain the line of scrimmage has been impressive and, frankly, we haven’t really had that here with a man of his size and his ability. He can still run. He’s a vertical threat. I think he’s done some really good things in the passing game. Love his experience, his professionalism. He’s been a great addition to our team.”
And then the season started. In Week 1 against Chicago, Lewis played seven snaps. In an overtime tie against Minnesota, he played 14. The following week at Washington, he again played only seven.
And on and on it went. The only game in which Lewis played even one-third of the snaps was Week 12 at Minnesota, when Graham suffered a broken thumb. The injury – and the subsequent firing of McCarthy a week later – didn’t change anything. Over the final five weeks, Lewis played a not-so-grand total of 49 snaps.
“It was frustrating but my mind-set is it’s not about me,” Lewis said on Friday, a day after a season-opening upset win at Chicago. “When you’re in the league for so long, you’ve seen it all, from having different teammates, the coaches. In Jacksonville, I had five coaches, two owners, two GMs. You know what I mean? I’ve seen it all. When it comes to situations like that – especially, I’m in a new environment, a new team, I’m just trying to figure it all out – and it was frustrating but what are you going to do? It wasn’t like we were in a situation where we were winning. I’m just not going to be that guy. I’ll do the best I can, whether I’m getting a lot of snaps or not. I control what I can control. My attitude, my effort is what I can control. Everything else is water off a duck’s back. When you have that mind-set, you go with the flow and you figure it out. If you try to worry about the things that you don’t control, you’re going to end up stressing yourself out, and I don’t want to take my mind there.”
After playing just four snaps in the season-ending loss to Detroit, Lewis packed up his bags to go home to his home near Hollywood. The season was over, his contract was up and he had no intention of returning to Green Bay.
But then, general manager Brian Gutekunst called. Gutekunst apologized for how Lewis was used and promised things would be different in 2019.
Lewis listened – despite a season of empty words. About a week later, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur as coach. A little more than two months later, Lewis decided to return to Green Bay on a one-year, $2.1 million deal. Why? The Packers allegedly needed Lewis in 2018; why should it be any different in 2019?
“Me and Gutey have a good relationship,” Lewis said. “He’s just a genuine dude – always has been to me, from the moment I walked in this building. I trusted him. So far, it’s paying off, whether it’s my snaps in the game or how they’re using me. I’m happy in my role, I accept it.”
Lewis played 34 snaps in the victory over Chicago – 11 more than he played in any game last season and at least twice as many as he played in 14 of 16 games. After catching just three passes for 39 yards last year, Lewis caught two passes for 14 yards against the Bears.
At 266 pounds, he cut about 10 pounds to get lighter for LaFleur’s zone scheme.
“He’s really transformed his body, I think,” Rodgers said late in training camp. “He looks leaner, stronger and he’s running well. I really give him a lot of credit for an older guy to come back in the shape he did. He put a hell of a lot of work in. He’s going to be an important part of our squad and our locker room with his leadership.”
That importance showed against the Bears, when he got the start and played almost as many snaps as Graham (35) and more than Robert Tonyan (20). Lewis’ calling card remains as a blocker. Seven offseasons of mixed-martial arts training, combined with size and experience, has made him a formidable foe.
“The way we train, what is it when you walk in the cage? It’s either me or you, and it’s definitely not going to be me,” Lewis said. “It’s the mentality. Mentally, you get in a place where I’m really here to outwork myself and I’m going to set the bar and let everybody else limbo underneath that. That’s the mind-set we have. Before I started doing that, you have a natural anxiety and a healthy fear when you walk onto the field. Now, the anxiety is good anxiety of what you’re going to do to your opponent. It’s more of a confidence that you have. Like, ‘Yo, we can either do it on this field or we can take it wherever you want to take it.’ It’s helped more that way.”
Lewis also caught two passes – hardly earth-shattering production to make anyone expect a repeat of his 50-plus catch seasons of 2010 and 2012. Still, the third-oldest tight end in the NFL can still move, as he showed on a second-quarter bootleg that went for 9 yards.
“That’s light work right there, “Lewis said with a smile. “That’s light work. We’ve got some more stuff coming.”