Friday, January 16, 2009

Tim Lewis vs. Chuck Cecil

As the Packers continue to whittle away the list of veteran defensive coordinator candidates, it is looking more and more like our new DC may end up being someone who may be less and less experienced.

Nothing against Jim Haslett, but I just am not sure he has the fire that McCarthy needs right now. And, face it....he's been "available" for a couple days now, and there's been no offer. I have a feeling that he may not be the guy.

The next name on the list is Sean McDermott, the Philly secondary coach that one may guess McCarthy is waiting for. I have a feeling he may be the odds-on favorite, especially if Haslett takes a pass.

But, there are two other guys out there, both former Packer defensive backs, that are also being mentioned: Titan secondary coach Chuck Cecil and Carolina secondary coach Tim Lewis. Both played for the Packers back in the 80's (not exactly a time in Packer history that bodes well for veteran fans) and both attained a bit of acclaim in their own way.

But, if I had to choose one or the other, I'd take Tim Lewis.

As a fan, I loved Chuck Cecil. He was a guy who invented the term "ESPN Highlight Hit", rearing back from his safety spot to deliver a punishing hit that sent shivers down a running back's spine. Somehow, the same cut would reopen on the bridge of his nose at some point during every game and blood would flow down his face.

He was the embodiment of the Forrest Gregg era, the old school hit man that was out to punish the opponent, and I cheered as loudly as anyone else for him. He came from a time period that included other hit men (and thugs), like Kenny Stills and Charles Martin.

But there was another name from those teams that many of us forget, and one that in retrospect, I feel badly that I directed a ton of derision his way.

Jerry Holmes was a cornerback in the early 90's. And every game, you could count on him getting burned for a long pass or a touchdown. If you can remember back that far, you probably remember getting your first foam brick for Christmas and throwing it at the television when he allowed another big pass.

Eventually, Holmes was let go in 1991, released after the Packers took a certain cornerback in the draft named Terrell Buckley. And Chuck Cecil saw his production take a turn soon thereafter, also. A new coach named Mike Holmgren came in changed things up, and Cecil was gone after the 1993 season.

What happened?

Playing under Gregg and Infante, Cecil was given a wide berth to get his big hits. And many times, Cecil would get a running start to get those hits. The problem came in that on passing plays, particularly following a good play-action, Cecil was out of position to help out on the over-the-top coverage. Since he played on the same side of the field as Jerry Holmes, it was Holmes who often got the finger pointed at him after giving up a big play.

Makes sense. He's the cornerback. He's supposed to cover the WR. I blamed it on him. He left with Infante.

But when Holmgren came in, he brought a new level of accountability to the team that wasn't present in the bounty-hunting days of Gregg and the country club atmosphere of Infante. When Cecil was out of position, he got called out on it.

Eventually, injuries and a lack of production ended his tenure with the Packers. Soon afterwards, the Packers brought along a new strong safety named LeRoy Butler, who also was able to hit hard. However, he took responsibility for his coverages, and ended up playing alongside two solid free safeties, George Teague and then Eugene Robinson.

It was during that time that the Packer defense became among the league's best. There's no doubt that is due in large part to the caliber of players in the front seven, but it also due in part to the smarter play in the secondary.

Tim Lewis, on the other hand, played only four seasons before having his career cut short by injury. Lewis was a highly skilled player, solid in coverage and excellent in playing the ball. He finished with 16 interceptions in those three and a half years playing right cornerback, and at the time, was probably one of the only true playmakers on that defensive squad.

No, Lewis didn't make any big hits or have blood on his nose. He just went out and did his job as a shutdown corner. He still holds the Packer record for longest interception return, a beautiful 99 yard return for a touchdown against the Rams in 1984.

My point? I've made a point for several years now about how much I would like to see the Packers utilize their safeties in a more conventional approach. Right now, since the Bates scheme was implemented, we have safeties that are supposed to be interchangeable, instead of the traditional run-stuffing strong safety and the coverage-minded free safety.

Furthermore, the Packers have had Ted Thompson drafting for the Bates scheme, and we keep getting coverage-impaired players like Nick Collins, Atari Bigby, Mark Roman, and Aaron Rouse who are all solid run stoppers but have consistently cost the team in coverage, and left the cornerbacks out to dry.

If I had to choose between Lewis and Cecil as to who will finally address this issue, I don't think Cecil is going to be the guy who is going to push it, especially as a player who often left Jerry Holmes out to dry to take on the big hit himself.

Now, there's a lot more to a defense than the secondary, and our team needs a lot of help on the other two squads: defensive line and linebackers. However, I've said for years that by bringing in a good "quarterback of the defense" like Eugene Robinson to play free safety, allowing a budding Nick Collins to move to strong safety, you would solve a ton of problems in the passing game and improve the defense right away.

I think Lewis would be far more likely to make that change in the backfield. Furthermore, his tendency towards a softer zone defense might be the proper approach for a roster that is presently lacking in playmakers. While many Packer fans would be excited to see an aggressive 3-4 defense with a lot of blitzing, we only have to look back to Bob Slowik to see the effects of aggressive blitzing when you don't have guys who can blitz, and even worse, you don't have safeties who can cover.

Cecil has those kinds of player in Tennessee. We do not.

Chuck Cecil will always be a great memory in Packers history, a guy we got excited about when watching poor teams. He was our moral victory each week...we may not be able to beat the other team, but we can beat on them, at least.

But to bring that kind of approach to the 2009 Packer defense may be a death knell for McCarthy and Thompson. You can't take any old player off the street, throw them into an aggressive blitzing scheme and make it work. You have to design your schemes around what you have to work with and try and maximize what talents they have.

Tim Lewis certainly has been criticized for being soft, but that was because he began dropping strong blitzing players like LaVar Arrington and Sam Madison back into zone coverage. The Packers don't have any players like that on the roster today, and in fact, need to compensate for the weaknesses we have along the defensive line and linebacking corps.

But we also need to get a true free safety in the secondary, playing alongside hard-hitters like Bigby or Collins. And we need a defensive coordinator who is going to make it happen. A talent overhaul is going to take more than one season, even if we had an aggressive GM.

I would take Lewis over Cecil. In reality, with Haslett, Dom Capers, and Sean McDermott seemingly first on the radar, I doubt it will come to that.

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