June 15, 2007

Saint Elder Statesmen Lewis, Whitehead Released

Two had played their entire careers in New Orleans, 14 years combined

Two of the longest-tenured current Saints have been released by the team today.

GM Mickey Loomis in a released statement:

"Both men have meant a lot to this franchise and during their careers here have been exactly what you look for in an NFL player. Michael is a New Orleans native and deservedly has a special place in the hearts of our fans. Willie had been with our team longer than any other current player.

This is a situation where we had to make a decision on what made the most sense for our club, and it also gives Michael and Willie a chance to explore their opportunities before training camps open around the league."

The greatest kick returner in team history and owner of the single best kick return year in NFL history, beloved native Michael Lewis, 35, was released with two years remaining on the contract he signed last season. Lewis, who hadn't fully recovered from a major knee injury early in 2005, was still being limited in offseason practices this year.

The longest active tenured Saint, defensive lineman Willie Whitehead, 34, was also released. With the Saints since 1998, Whitehead also signed a new three-year contract in 2006.

The players combined for 14 seasons of Saints experience, and have never played for another team.

The diminutive 5'8, 170 pound Lewis began his career at the age of 29 after almost giving up on his career, which had toured minor and arena leagues across the country. Lewis was working as a beer truck delivery man when he managed a tryout with the Saints late in the 2000 season. After being cut by the Eagles in training camp earlier that year, he was fortunate to spend some unremarkable, unpublicized time on the Saints' practice squad in 2000. In 2001, he worked very hard on his receiving and ball handling skills.

At this size, Lewis had little chance of competing on offense. But on special teams Lewis worked tirelessly as both a returner - the job that earned him a Pro Bowl - and an excellent coverage man. It was his unbelievable foot speed that got him in the door with the Saints, but his tireless work ethic that made the team. Lewis will need to renew his toughness again to recover from this knee injury.

In 2001, Lewis had problems holding on to the ball on returns. An ankle injury and his struggles limited him to only 8 games in 2001. The Saints also didn't need Lewis much that year, they had a young runningback named Deuce McAllister who handled most of the return duties.

In December of 2001 in Tampa Bay, Lewis was the first man down on kickoff coverage and missed then-Bucs RB Aaron Stecker. As Stecker raced down field, so did Lewis, and 86 yards later Lewis made the tackle at the opposite end of the field.

In 2002, his work finally paid off. Lewis became an outstanding punt and kickoff return man, scoring three touchdowns on returns including two in one game against the Redskins - only the seventh man in NFL history to do so and the first in team history. Lewis also set NFL returns for total return yardage and managed eight catches for 200 yards including three catches over 40 yards. He and fellow special teams soldier Fred McAfee made the Pro Bowl in 2002.

In 2003 and 2004, Lewis continued to progress as a receiver and returner. He scored his first and so far only offensive touchdown in Tampa Bay in 2003 on an impossible-looking catch in double coverage over the middle. A valuable community member and teammate through this Saints coaching administration, Lewis' veteran presence and explosion will be missed this season.

His 2005 season was almost completely lost to the injury. He managed only two punt returns, two kick returns, and one tackle in one and a half games. Last season Lewis appeared in 10 games, returning 37 for 914 yards, bringing his Saint total, and record, 5903 kick return yards. He also had 16 punt returns for 111 yards, totaling 1482 career punt return yards. Ever the professional, even at his age Lewis was in on six special teams tackles.

A key reserve at defensive end and tackle, starting when necessary and never quitting, Whitehead had a legendary performance against Tampa Bay in 2003 when he collected a three sacks, five tackles, a forced fumble, and a credited pass defense. In the fourth quarter of the Saints' tight 17-14 victory, Whitehead had a key fourth down sack in the fourth quarter and was visibly exhausted between snaps, starting in place of Grady Jackson. Whitehead won the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. After the game, Whitehead was hospitalized with exhausted and dehydration. Tom Benson's private plane few him home from Tampa the next day.

Whitehead, 6'3, 300, recorded a tackle in every game in 2005, starting all but one game at defensive tackle. Underpowered at tackle and outquicked at end, Whitehead has made up for it his entire career - which included CFL and NFL Europe experience before making it to the NFL - with a tireless work ethic and solid fundamentals and tackling. The Auburn product and Tuskegee, AL native turned 34 in January. He joined Mike Ditka's team in 1999 as an undrafted rookie and has appeared in 105 of a possible 128 regular season games since, with 24.5 career sacks including seven as a rookie. He aided the team's scouting efforts at Senior Bowls and may have a future in the front office.

Another "vested" Saint veteran, Fred McAfee, was released and hired by the Saints this offseason.

The release of Lewis and Whitehead drops the roster's average age by more than two months to just over 26 years and eight months.

The longest tenured Saint is now CB Fred Thomas, signed in February 2000 from Seattle.

The team also announced the release of undrafted rookie tackle Peter Dyakowski.

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