September 27, 2004

Career Checkpoint for Lewis Passed

Lewis continues assault on record books with milestone

On the day that New Orleans Saints wide receiver/kick returner Michael Lewis made yet another dent in an record book, he also made one of his clutch catches.

For Lewis, who is rarely looked at in the passing game as a fourth or fifth option at wideout, most of his catches are huge, if not game-changing.

Last November in Tampa Bay, Lewis had one of the watershed games of his NFL career, which started late at the age of 28 on the Saints' practice squad. In that game Lewis caught his first touchdown pass as a pro and later caught a crucial pass deep over the middle to set up John Carney's game-winning field goal at the end of regulation for the 17-14 win. A scenario that wasn't far off from what happened Sunday in St. Louis.

In the fourth quarter with a punt return of 34 yards, Lewis passed up Tyrone Hughes for the leader in career punt yardage. Lewis scooted up the middle to the Saints 42-yard line after Sean Landeta's punt sailed too far for the Rams' coverage teams to bottle up Lewis. On that return, where Lewis was - as usual - a shoestring or two away from a special teams touchdown, the seed was planted in Rams coach Mike Martz's head that would lead to a game-changing mistake.

With record in hand but his team down by three with only 28 seconds left, Lewis sat near his own goal line to await the kickoff. But Martz ordered Jeff Wilkins to execute a squib kick; a low, chaotically-bouncing kick that found its way to one of Lewis' blockers, rookie Will Smith. Smith scooped it up at his 25 and somehow rumbled 17 yards to put the Saints dangerously close to field goal range.

“They have a fantastic returner, so I think the call there was we didn’t want to get it in his hands and maybe take it all the way,” Wilkins said. “You see it called all the time. It just didn’t work out today.”

But Lewis' job was not yet done. Two plays later, Brooks would find Lewis sitting alone in a pocket deep in the Rams' zone. The 25-yard completion moved the Saints to the Rams' 33 yard line with 12 seconds to go, at the edge of John Carney's field goal range again. Two plays after that, Carney would connect for the field goal that sent the game to overtime. With 7:59 left, Carney would kick again, this time for the win.

The peak of Lewis' came in 2002 when the former beer delivery man broke team and league records for combined kick and punt return yardage, one of the single best years for a return man in team history. Lewis' 2,432 total return yardage broke the team record by almost 500 yards, and three touchdowns were added along the way. It didn't hurt that Lewis also broke the team return for return attempts that year with 114.

Lewis also owns the single-season punt return yardage record (625), tied for the longest punt return with Hughes (83 yards), and most kickoff return yards in a season (1807). After Sunday, Lewis remains 2750 yards behind Hughes in career kickoff return yards.

Sunday looks to be one of many days where Lewis will continue his assault on the record books. The team signed him to a contract extension through 2005 so the dream will have an opportunity to continue.

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