Even though he'd been made the scapegoat for the Steelers' 6-10 season by Coach Bill Cowher, Lewis had received a warm, thoughtful phone call from majority owner Dan Rooney and a long hand-written letter from minority owner Jack McGinley. Lewis is leaving with hard evidence that he has not burned his bridges.
That was one reason to smile. The other -- aside from his wife being pregnant with the couple's first child -- is that he has a job in the Big Apple. Tom Coughlin, the new coach of the New York Giants, hired Lewis less than three days after Cowher fired him.
It's a great move for Lewis for two reasons. One, he'll work with an offensive-minded coach who'll give Lewis more breathing room, and, two, while Lewis will be working for another demanding coach, the difference is that Coughlin holds his players accountable, not the assistant coaches.
Ever wonder what it's like to work for a players' coach such as Cowher? Lewis has learned all too well. Take the case of Jason Gildon. The leading sacker in team history had complained openly about Lewis' play-calling in 2002, so the squeaky wheel got the grease in 2003 and was afforded more pass-rushing opportunities than ever. But Gildon couldn't get past tackles anymore, nor could he rush past most tight ends. Running backs also gave him fits, so Gildon ended up with six measly sacks.
The fault, according to Gildon, rested with Lewis, who wasn't using Gildon in as many pass-rushing "games" as he felt he should have. Gildon expressed his displeasure but didn't receive satisfaction from Lewis, so he went to Cowher, who sided with the player. Gildon was involved in more games, but obviously not more sacks.
How do you suppose Coughlin would've responded to a whining Gildon? He might've cut him on the spot. Cowher instead rankled his right-hand man and will still cut Gildon, and he'll probably do so through a late February press release, just as the Steelers begin negotiating with Clark Haggans.
So Lewis is long gone from this mess, and you'd figure he should have reason to smile. He has a better opportunity in a grandiose city. Yet, the smile is admittedly forced. He is up and he is down on this night. He doesn't even look at the many TV screens showing the Patriots and Titans in the best playoff game of the weekend.
There are reasons for the valleys, he explains. One is that the firing cost Lewis a great chance for the job of head coach in Atlanta. He was told he was a leading candidate to replace Dan Reeves and had been promised a second interview. His chances, he was told, were in the 65 percent range and that he was not a token minority interview. But after Cowher intimated that a Lewis lie was the reason for the firing, the Falcons dropped Lewis cold and within 48 hours hired another young, unproven defensive coordinator to coach their team.
Lewis' wife, whose family is from Atlanta, seethes over the missed opportunity, but it's Lewis doing the seething over being called a liar.
"We had very candid conversations," Cowher told reporters about a series of three meetings with Lewis. "Through the course of those conversations, philosophically speaking, it was the right thing to do."
That was the official pronouncement, but in details that were leaked to all of Cowher's favorite national reporters, Lewis came off as a paranoid-schizophrenic who told "even the lowest staffers" that he was about to be fired. Cowher asked Lewis what he'd said to one particular staffer as the team boarded the buses following the final game in Baltimore. Lewis couldn't recall the exact verbiage, but when told "Nice job this season. Better luck next season" Lewis responded with something along the lines of "If I'm around," or "I hope I'm still here next season." Since those weren't the exact words Cowher had heard from the lowly staffer, Cowher called Lewis back for another meeting and asked for the precise response. Lewis couldn't recall it, so Cowher called this a philosophical difference and fired him.
Lewis couldn't even explain to Coughlin, in two sentences or less, why he'd been fired. Apparently, it didn't matter to Coughlin, just as it shouldn't have mattered to Cowher. After all, Lewis' head was swimming with media speculation. Radio talk shows pulsated with talk that Lewis would take the fall for the Steelers' poor record. The Steelers' team paper discussed the pros and cons of such a move. After all, the defense had fallen all the way to NINTH in the league for crying out loud. But even though the unit improved dramatically in the second half of the season, when Lewis got his way and was finally allowed to put Deshea Townsend in the lineup at cornerback, the rumors persisted.
One reporter asked Lewis if he was coming back and Lewis responded with "So you've heard I'm getting it, too." This was another comment that was reported to Cowher. But instead of pulling his right-hand man aside and telling him to relax and forget about these rumors, Cowher waited until the season was over to bust him over semantics.
Lewis doesn't read enough about football or listen to talk radio enough to realize most of these hacks are wrong 90 percent of the time, so he took a keen interest with his own name being bandied about, and his response was to believe it. And why not? After all, the coach had sided with the team captain over one of the biggest on-the-field problems the Steelers were having. He'd also ripped Lewis up and down through the headsets during several games, particularly the San Diego game, which the Steelers won going away.
"The worst defense in the league."
Those are the phrases that filled Lewis' head as he pondered the swirling rumors, so he made the mistake of acting graciously to the "lowest staffers", reporters and assistant coaches who wondered why Cowher was suddenly spending so much time with secondary coach Willy Robinson.
Lewis, maybe to a fault, trusts those he perceives as friends, and is perhaps loyal to a fault. But that loyalty runs both ways with some of his friends, and those friends wanted Lewis to be happy on this particular night. He'd lost a great chance to become a head coach for Michael Vick's team, yes, but he'd also overcome the fact he was publicly branded a liar and will have a great job with a great organization in a great city. So those friends asked again why he was troubled.
"I wanted to stay with this organization. I loved being a Pittsburgh
And with that, he finally looked up at the TV screen to watch the final drive by the Titans and Steve McNair. Lewis was warmed by the thought that someone else had to stop McNair on this last-minute drive, when suddenly McNair threw a jump ball downfield to wide receiver Drew Bennett.
"Where's Chad Scott?" someone shouted, referring to the exact play which crushed the Steelers earlier in the season.
But Bennett, who'd outjumped the New England corner the exact way he'd outjumped Scott, dropped the ball and the game was over.
"If only he'd have dropped the ball against us," Lewis said.
Lewis may have dropped the ball here in Pittsburgh, but, really, this story is about a head coach who was looking for a reason to fire his defensive coordinator. The stats were in Lewis' favor, so was the fact they'd been accomplished without any pass-rushers or cover men. But someone had to pay for a 6-10 season. Someone always does with Cowher, who this time must live with not only firing the man, but calling him a liar and costing him a better job.
Had Cowher simply told Lewis to catch on somewhere else, or to go talk to Dennis Green, the implication would've been clear and the reputation of a bright, respected, loyal, friendly and good man would've been kept intact. Instead, Lewis leaves Pittsburgh a little more cynical, a little less trusting and for no real good reason at all.
Lewis has reason to smile, but can't
Steel City Insider Top Stories
On The Steelers BeatStory time: Law Dawg, Reuben Foster-Ryan Shazier, Big Al on Army-Navy, Rex Ryan, Shady and more.
Steel City InsiderYesterday at 3:09 PM
Big Boy Offense Back In VogueThree OTs, three TEs, a fullback -- Le'Veon Bell says bring it on.
Steel City InsiderThursday at 3:36 PM
Notebook: Rex Owns Up to Cutting CockrellA near 2,000-word notebook from a busy day at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Steel City InsiderWednesday at 5:14 PM
All-22 Review: Giants-SteelersJon Ledyard breaks down tape of the Steelers win over the Giants
Steel City InsiderWednesday at 8:15 AM
Notebook: Never Mind the BullockA guy named Bullock still around, Law Dawg finding his rhythm, offensive skill players on the mend, a look at the Bills, and more.
Steel City InsiderTuesday at 5:05 PM