Lewis looking for spot on roster

Published 9:40 pm Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Michael Lewis can’t count on his popularity as the “beer man” to keep his job as kick returner for the New Orleans Saints — not with players like Reggie Bush on the roster.

And not while playing for new head coach Sean Payton, who has made it clear on numerous occasions that players will be judged more by what they show him this month than by what they’ve done in the past.

“I’m not a first-round draft pick. I took the long route to get here,” said Lewis, a 2002 Pro Bowl selection who had been a beer truck driver before he parlayed a long-shot tryout into a roster spot in 2001. “So every year … I have to get out there and fight for my position.”

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That hasn’t been a problem for Lewis during the past five seasons. But more than a week into this training camp, the small but fast 34-year-old has yet to be healthy enough to take the field at full speed, spending almost every practice riding a stationary exercise bike.

Lewis said the problem is not his anterior cruciate ligament, which was surgically repaired after an injury that sidelined him for most of last season. A subsequent arthroscopic procedure in late June to remove loose particles from behind his knee cap is what has set back his rehabilitation, he said.

“My ACL is straight. They went in just to clean up things behind it,” Lewis said. “In minicamp I was running around, feeling good and everything, but when I got it checked right afterward they had some loose particles that needed to be cleaned.”

After the more recent procedure, he had to wear a brace that prevented him from lifting weights to strengthen surrounding muscles until shortly before camp.

“We’re really worried about getting strength back into my quad muscle,” Lewis explained after spending a recent practice pedaling on the sideline. “I can run, but we’re just trying to build it up so when I come out of cuts and stuff like that, I won’t have any problems.”

On Tuesday morning, Lewis was off the bike, taking part in a special teams walkthrough. In recent days he has caught a few punts after practice.

But he has yet to return a kick against the coverage team and still can’t say for sure when he’ll be ready.

“When you’re injured you want to say, ’I’ll be back in week, two weeks, whatever,’ but it’s going day-by-day,” Lewis said. “Some days I go out and feel real good, go lift and everything and run on it, and the next day I wake up and it might be sore.”

Payton offered mildly encouraging words for Lewis when he recently referred to him as established.

“He’s had a great career as a returner. For him it’s more how does he come off this injury,” Payton said.

At the same time, the coach is trying out numerous possible replacements — from the Heisman Trophy-winning Bush, who returned kicks at Southern California, to reserve quarterback Adrian McPherson, to a host of receivers.

“If I start letting that bother me, then I’m going to start pushing myself to get out there before it’s time and something could happen where I could re-injure myself,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who has been timed at 4.2 seconds in a 40-yard sprint and once had kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns in the same game, said he believes he is still among the best return men in the NFL.

If the Saints decide to let him go, another team might pick him up. But Lewis, a New Orleans native, struggles with the idea of playing anywhere else after his storybook rise from obscurity at age 29 to becoming one of the NFL’s most exciting kick returners with his hometown team.

He is well recognized in New Orleans, where he has appeared in truck dealership commercials and continues to be affectionately called “beer man.”

“I’m a hometown guy. Why would I want to go somewhere else?” Lewis said. “Like I said before I got my contract — I started here and I want to end my career here.”