Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett sat down with practice-squad quarterback Thad Lewis last Friday, the day after starting QB EJ Manuel suffered a sprained knee.
“I wanted to know where we’re at,” Hackett said. “He’s been in all the meetings, he’s done all the tests. Now it’s like, ‘OK, there’s no game plan in. If I do this, what are you going to do? If I do this, what are you going to do? If you do this, what are you going to do?’ And he’s answering it all.”
“I was blown away when I first started talking to him,” Hackett said. “I started asking him all these questions, and he knew the answers. I said, ‘How’d you know all this stuff? He said, ‘Well coach, this is my job. I’m learning it just like I’m the starter.’ ”
Hackett expressed satisfaction Friday with Lewis’ ability to run a full offensive package when the Bills face the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Of course, the Bills have little choice but to put their confidence in Lewis, promoted from the practice squad Monday and named to replace Manuel as the starter.
Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe Lewis will at least know what to do when he makes his second NFL start. Whether he can execute what he’s supposed to do will be the intriguing subplot of the game.
Lewis graduated in 3ø years from Duke University.
“He’s definitely an intelligent young man,” Hackett said “He comes from a great coach at Duke. He’s been in a lot of systems with a lot of other great coaches. He’s been in this kind of system before. I think he’s not going to have any setbacks from the mental standpoint or the confidence standpoint.”
Hackett also thinks Lewis should have a good feel for what the coaches are looking for on offense in part because he spent the first five games in the coaches’ booth. Lewis charted defensive pass coverages for Hackett.
“He’s been up in the press box with me, so I’ve been able to communicate with him,” Hackett said. “He’s been able to see how I operate, see how the system works. He’s gotten a lot of mental reps throughout the games being there. I think that was super important for him.”
After going undrafted out of college, Lewis spent his first NFL season on St. Louis’ practice squad and most of the past two seasons on Cleveland’s practice squad. Lewis passed for 10,065 yards, with 67 touchdowns and 40 interceptions for the Blue Devils.
He went undrafted largely because he’s only 6-foot, one-quarter inches, and he’s not an elite athlete by NFL Draft standards.
There’s little doubt the Bengals’ defense, which ranks eighth in the NFL, will focus on stopping the Bills’ potent run game and challenge Lewis to make throws downfield.
“That’s how it’s been the whole year,” Hackett said. “You always have to have the threat to go outside.”
Lewis showed composure in starting last December for a weapon-deficient Cleveland team versus Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense. He completed 22-of-32 passes for 204 yards. The Browns lost, 24-10. Lewis had just one completion of more than 20 yards, a 23-yard catch-and-run to Greg Lewis.
Hackett, never lacking for enthusiasm, says Lewis has NFL arm strength.
“I’ll tell you, he’s got a heckuva arm,” Hackett said. “He can sling that thing. He has little effort to deliver the ball with a lot of velocity. That’s something that’s really special for him.”
“He threw for 10,000 yards in college,” Hackett said. “That wasn’t an accident. He’s accurate. He’s quick with his feet, quick with his release. From a throwing standpoint, he’s got some major skills.”
It all adds up, Hackett says, to a game plan that will not be limited against the Bengals.
“We’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing and see how he can execute that,” Hackett said.