State Your Case: why forgotten CB Albert Lewis deserves a HOF look

Albert Lewis (29) photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs

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.

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  1. bachslunch
    September 25, 2018

    Albert Lewis (2/4/none) may not have a showy honors profile, but otherwise he has a strong HoF argument. He was an elite special teams player, particularly when it came to blocking kicks. And he reportedly looks terrific in film study, enough of an elite cover corner that Dr. Z called him one of the “three great technicians” along with HoFers Roger Wehrli and Mike Haynes and ranking at this skill only behind Jim Johnson and Deion Sanders. Heady praise, indeed.

    I’d be fine with him getting in someday.

    Rick, well argued article, well written column as always. Great reading.

    • Rick Gosselin
      September 25, 2018

      I actually covered Lewis the bulk of his career. I saw all those blocked kicks. Not many players can be considered elite in two of the game’s three phases. I agree with Dungy.

  2. Justin
    September 25, 2018

    Albert Lewis or Deron Cherry?

    Lewis had greater longevity, but Cherry has more all pros and pro bowls. Tough call. Both could be deserving but unlikely both will not be elected.

    • Rick Gosselin
      September 25, 2018

      Both deserve to be discussed. One excelled at corner, one excelled at safety. Both were stout on special teams. It’s late in the game for both candidacies but I’d love to have one or both in the room for that discussion. They were as good and in some cases better than some defensive backs who already have busts.

      • justin
        September 26, 2018

        Thank you for the insight. The fate of Lewis and Cherry (as well as Browner, Minnifield, Walls and others) has a lot to do with the odd voting behavior of the HOF selectors in the 1990s. In hindsight, those selectors had a very restricted view of what a hall of famer was. Largely a player needed to either have played QB or RB, or won a lot of championships. As a result, there are several years where the full compliment of potential selections were not used. Again in hindsight, there are very few Cortez Kennedy’s or Aeneas William’s elected in the 1990s (i.e., wonderful players who largely played in obscurity on losing teams).

        There also seems to have been a undue prioritization for players from the 1960s and 1970s in voting in the 1990s. As a result, there is a donut hole in HOF voting that largely encompasses players who played in the 1980s. For example, here is a breakdown of the per-decade HOF DBs:

        1950s: 4 (Butler, Christensen, Lane, Lary)
        1960s: 6 (Adderley, Johnson, LeBeau, Tunnell, Wilson, Wood)
        1970s: 8 (Barney, Blount, Brown, Houston, Krause, Renfro, Thomas, Wehrli)
        1980s: 4 (Easley, Green, Haynes, Lott)
        1990s: 3 (Sanders, Williams, Woodson)
        2000s: 1 (Dawkins)

        Therefore, there are 50% more HOF DBs from the 1960s than from the 1980s (with another 1960s DB, Robinson, highly likely to be elected this year), even though teams passed the ball far less and there were considerably less teams in the 1960s. Moreover, there are twice as many HOF DBs from the 1970s than the 1980s. The 1990s already have almost as many DBs (and of course Green could be added to the 1990s list as well since he played the entire decade, which would even the numbers), even though players from that decade still have modern era eligibility left. In the next two years, it is highly likely that the 2000s will at least match the 1980s with the likely inductions of Reed, Bailey, and Polamalu. In short, the 1980s players are severely under-represented in the HOF, and while it is true that 1980s Senior Candidates have largely not been nominated yet (although of course, Easley was a 1980s DB senior candidate), there are just two many qualified guys in the senior pool to rectify the mistakes that were performed in the 1990s voting. Moreover, while I have focused on DBs, the same pattern holds for WRs and LBs and many other positions.

  3. brian wolf
    October 5, 2018

    Good points Justin, especially considering DBs. However the 80s were the decade that saw passers take full advantage of the rules changes from 75 – 78, especially the Mel Blount rule that limited contact to the initial five yard area.

    Due to all the passing and scoring, alot of good to great DBs didnt get the credit they are due. Gary Green, Kevin Ross and Albert Lewis got better and better on the Chiefs squad alone, having to deal with all the excellent receivers in the AFC West.

    There were other defensive backs that took pride in their play and excelled as well like Eric Wright of the 49s, Everson Walls of the Cowboys, with assistance from Ed Jones, Dave Brown of Seattle, Minniefield and Dixon of Cleveland, Clayborn of NE, Collins of the NYGs, Irvin of the LARams, Logan of Philly and of course Lester Hayes who was still great with Oak but without the stickum.

    These players deserve more recognition but may not get it with all the passing and scoring of the decade. Luckily, defences adapted to these rule changes better at the end of the decade and ushered in better play in the nineties.

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