After almost calling it quits, Marcedes Lewis finds himself in a meaningful role with Packers’ new offense
Marcedes Lewis was finished. With the season. With the Packers. And, perhaps, football altogether.
In the wake of the team’s season-ending shutout loss to the Lions last December – a game in which Lewis played four measly snaps – the veteran tight end packed up his belongings and prepared to head home to California, ready to put what had turned out to be the biggest wasted year of his football life behind him. Maybe even retire.
“That was definitely in my mind right after the season,” Lewis recounted to The Athletic Wisconsin late last week, after catching two passes for 14 yards in the Packers’ opening-night victory over the Bears at Soldier Field. “Right after that (Lions) game, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know about this.’ ”
And then, Lewis’ phone rang. At the other end of the line was Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, asking him to come back to the team’s Lambeau Field headquarters and talk.
Lewis didn’t see the point. Gutekunst pressed. Lewis finally relented and turned around and returned to the stadium.
“I was on my way to the airport. I was on my way out of town. And I didn’t want to come back,” Lewis continued. “But I met with him.”
The meeting lasted for more than an hour. Gutekunst apologized for how little Lewis had been used by ex-head coach Mike McCarthy and the previous coaching staff, having seen him play just 190 of the team’s 1,074 offensive snaps (17.7 percent).
He apologized for Lewis’ role not matching what he’d promised when the Packers signed Lewis to a one-year, $2.1 million free-agent deal after he’d been cut by Jacksonville. Gutekunst had thought he was giving quarterback Aaron Rodgers an experienced trio of tight end targets with Jimmy Graham, Lance Kendricks and Lewis, who’d caught 24 passes for 318 yards and five touchdowns for the Jaguars in 2017.
Instead, the coaches typecast Lewis as a blocking tight end. He wound up having only four targets in the passing game and finished with three catches for 39 yards – such a paltry total that, had Lewis made a contorting back-shoulder catch of a Rodgers throw during the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s win over the Bears, Lewis would have matched his reception total from last season in one game.
“Coming here, I thought there was a plan, and it didn’t go that way. Had it not been for ’12’ (Rodgers) and ‘80’ (Graham) to kind of keep my head in it. …” Lewis said, his voice trailing off. “It was one of those years where it’s like, ‘Man, I’ve done this for a lot of years, done well for myself.’
“But it took a lot to just continue week after week, to not be involved, to not even show the respect to try to get the tight ends involved. Not just me, but the tight ends in general. So for it to flip-flop this year and be out there playing football and running plays, it’s a different feeling.”
And that was the last item on Gutekunst’s conversational to-do list: The GM told Lewis that if he came back for another year in 2019, things would be different – even though the Packers had yet to hire McCarthy’s replacement.
About a week after their conversation, the Packers tabbed 39-year-old Matt LaFleur, who is only four years older than Lewis and one of the NFL’s bright up-and-coming offensive minds. Two months after that, on March 14, Lewis signed another one-year, $2.1 million contract, the same deal he had the previous year.
But based on what happened against the Bears, that’s the only similarity Lewis will experience from last season to this season.
“Me and Gutey have a good relationship. He’s just a genuine dude – always has been to me, from the moment I walked in this building,” Lewis said. “I trusted him. And he’s stayed true to his word.”
Against the Bears, LaFleur deployed two-tight end personnel groups on 20 of the offense’s 64 snaps, and there was at least one tight end on the field for every single snap. Not only did Lewis play 34 snaps (53%), but Graham (35 snaps) and Robert Tonyan (25 snaps) also played extensively. Of Rodgers’ 18 completions, seven went to tight ends for 72 yards and the game’s only touchdown.
LaFleur has spoken often about the importance of the tight end in his offense (“That’s an extremely important position for an offense because you can really create some advantages,” he said recently), and it certainly didn’t hurt Lewis’ chances when LaFleur tabbed ex-Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to be his coordinator in Green Bay.
“I’m a big fan of Marcedes. He did a great job when we were at Jacksonville and we missed him when he left,” Hackett said during training camp. “The No. 1 thing is how he prepares himself as a pro. For as much as he can do at the point of contact in the pass protection game, for us, he was a threat in the red zone at Jacksonville. And all those things are things we want to ramp up with him here. I think that’s going to mean some great things for him.
“I think he’s going he’s going to help us a bunch.”
He’s certainly off to a strong start. After putting on extra weight last year for his blocking-centric role, Lewis slimmed down through extra running and mixed martial arts workouts in Hollywood, excited that LaFleur and Hackett intended to use him in more varied ways. He weighed 266 pounds to start the season – and feeling like another weight, that of having an unimportant role had been lifted.
“It’s a mixture of both – it’s Matt and the scheme, and it being pretty tight end-friendly. But it’s also Nate, because he knows what I can do, from blocking to being able to catch the ball,” Lewis said. “I can still get up the field, I can still catch the rock.
“For me, I’ve never been a ‘me’ guy. I just want to win. So when my number’s called, whatever it is, just be accountable. That’s how I felt. Last year was me like being a third tackle. Then Jimmy just running clear-out routes, not necessarily running routes for Jimmy. There was just a dysfunction.
“But this year, we’ve been able to streamline it and say, ‘OK, Marcedes, you’re the true Y. Jimmy, you’re the F, the move-around guy. Rob, you’re a package guy, you’re going to come in when Jimmy goes out, you’re going to go in 12 (personnel) with Marcedes.’ It’s really meaningful, purposeful reps. That gave me my love back for it, and it makes me want to work hard for it.
“I still have some football left in me, and I want to do it the right way. And (Thursday’s game) was just the tip of the iceberg. It felt good to be back out there and be in a meaningful role in the game.”