When Tony Dungy was the defensive backfield coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 1990s, head coach Marty Schottenheimer asked his assistants to chart each of their players statistically.
For cornerbacks, that meant scoring how they fared in Kansas City’s man-to-man coverage scheme. Dungy found that offenses didn’t often throw in Albert Lewis’ direction and when they did, they had little to show for it.
“Offenses would have something like four completions in 31 passes all season against Albert,” the Hall of Fame coach Dungy said. “It was ridiculous how good he was in man.”
Lewis was a shutdown cornerback who has been lost in the pages of history. Through no fault of his own. Longevity, productivity, consistency…it was all there. Jerry Rice once called Lewis “the toughest” cornerback he ever faced. But Lewis has never been in the Hall of Fame discussion, never once reaching the finals.
Lewis played 16 seasons, his first 11 with the Chiefs from 1983-93 and the last five with their AFC West rival the Raiders from 1994-98. He lined up on the left side during his lengthy stay in Kansas City. That’s the more difficult side for a cornerback to play because that’s the side of the field all the right-handed quarterbacks see naturally as they are dropping back to pass and setting up in the pocket. Still…
“Albert was one of the toughest guys I had to play against,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Tim Brown, a Raider teammate of Lewis. “Long arms, good feet and mean. I was very happy when he came over to our side.”
Lewis was a third-round draft pick by the Chiefs out of Eddie Robinson’s cornerback incubator at Grambling. He didn’t start his rookie NFL season but still intercepted four passes. He stepped into the starting lineup in 1984 – and remained there for the next 15 seasons. In 1998, in his final season, he became the oldest defensive player in NFL history to score a touchdown when he returned an interception 74 yards against the Seattle Seahawks.
Lewis intercepted 42 passes in his career. But as stout as he was individually in man coverage, there was little team success to draw attention to his excellence on the corner. Lewis participated in only six playoff games in his career – and three of those came in his final season with the Chiefs.
“If he played in a Super Bowl and had some winning teams at Kansas City, Albert would already be in the Hall of Fame,” Dungy said. “He was a very smart player, a very hard worker… everything you look for. I’d put him up there with (Hall of Famers Mel) Blount and (Mike) Haynes. Man-to-man, he was as good as Mel and Mike.”
Lewis was a big corner (6-2, 196) who could tie up receivers at the line with his hands and also had the long arms (35 inches) to get his hands on passes that most cornerbacks could not. His cat-like quickness and long arms allowed him to habitually break up slant routes from the outside shoulder of the receiver, not the inside shoulder which is the universal technique taught by coaches at every level.
“I’ve never saw a cornerback do it that way before or since,” Dungy said.
With his 4.3 speed, Lewis also was an excellent blitzer off the corner with 12 ½ career sacks, plus three more during that 1993 playoff run that took the Chiefs all the way to their last AFC title game in Buffalo. But what Lewis did better than Blount, Haynes and any other cornerback in NFL history – arguably any other player at any position in NFL history – was block punts.
If there was a Hall of Fame for special teamers, Lewis would already be in it. He blocked 12 career kicks – 11 punts and a field goal. He blocked four punts apiece in 1986 and 1990.
Even when Lewis was a marked man, he proved elusive. The Chiefs reached the AFC playoffs in that 1986 season, travelling to the New York Jets for a wild-card game. I remember visiting with Jets special-teams coach Larry Pasquale by phone the week of the game.
“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen Saturday,” Pasquale told me, “but I can guarantee you one thing – Albert Lewis will not block a punt against us.”
Not only did Lewis block a Dave Jennings’ punt that game, he chased it down and recovered it in the end zone for a Kansas City touchdown in a 35-15 loss to the Jets. Lewis also scored a second touchdown on a blocked punt against the Seahawks in 1993.
The opposition did it’s best to avoid Lewis on the field on both passing and kicking downs. Now Canton has avoided Lewis for the first 18 years of his Hall of Fame eligibility. His career deserves better. His career deserves consideration for a bust in Canton.