Former Duke quarterback Thad Lewis made his first career start in the last week of the NFL's regular season. Credit: Joshua Gunter, The Plain Dealer
Last week, on his way from Cleveland back home to Miami, former Duke quarterback Thad Lewis stopped by campus to speak with the media. He was all smiles, not surprising considering he was a few days removed from his first NFL start.
As the Browns third-string quarterback, Lewis realized that he would have to wait patiently for his opportunity. But he never doubted that it would come.
“In the back of my mind, I knew that everything would present itself at the right time,” he said. “The only thing I kept telling myself is that it’s not my time. When the time comes, it will present itself, and I just need to make sure that I’m ready. A lot of guys, they go in a shell and forget who they are.”
When Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy both were sidelined with shoulder injuries, Lewis started the Browns' final game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their No. 1-ranked defense. In a 24-10 loss, Lewis completed 22 of 32 passes for 204 yards, one touchdown (to UNC alum Greg Little) and one interception.
“Lewis performed reasonably well and better than most expected,” wrote Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“The moment never seemed too big for Lewis. On the Browns' first play from scrimmage, he connected with Josh Gordon for 12 yards to the Cleveland 29. He completed four of his first five -- and looked good doing it.
“Lewis made some bad throws and bad decisions, but they were not the result of being intimidated or unnerved.”
Lewis said it took until after the first snap for the realization that he had achieved his childhood dream of starting in the NFL to hit him. The actual game experience, though, was comparable to a preseason game, he said.
“A lot of people try to say that a preseason game is different from a regular season game, but guys are moving around just as fast in the preseason because we are all trying to get a job,” he said, with another smile.
Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and sports information director Art Chase drove to Pittsburgh to watch Lewis’s start. Chase had been one of three people Lewis called when he first found out he was starting. His mother and brother were the other two. He waited until after the Belk Bowl to talk with his former coaches.
“Of course I was excited to see my quarterback coach, the guy that I spent two years with and coached me harder than I’ve ever been coached in my life,” Lewis said of Roper. “Just to see him on the sideline shows the support you have from the Duke coaching staff and Duke nation. You don’t want to disappoint when you see guys like that on the sideline.”
Lewis was a junior when David Cutcliffe took over, and, under the tutelage of Roper, Lewis developed into an NFL-caliber quarterback. The team developed, too, going from zero and one win in Lewis’s freshman and sophomore seasons to four and five wins in his last two campaigns.
“Even though we didn’t go to a bowl, we laid the foundation,” Lewis said. “And when the coaching staff brought in the athletes needed to compete in the ACC, those guys reached that level. They did something we haven’t done, and that’s win the games to reach that level.
“We showed guys that just because you go to Duke doesn’t mean you can’t reach the next level or beat guys in the ACC. And that’s what the coaches have presented to the team. And the talent they have now, I wish I had that when I played at Duke.”
Lewis said he tries to call Roper at least once a week to keep him updated. Right now, Lewis’s future is uncertain, as he is a restricted free agent. And the Browns fired head coach Pat Shurmur, who had also been Lewis’ offensive coordinator in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.
Lewis and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, will meet once the playoffs are done to figure out his next move. Lewis said he’ll spend the offseason training and waiting for his next opportunity. Before he settled into that routine though, he wanted to stop by Duke. He wanted to congratulate them on taking Duke to its first bowl game since the 1994 season.
“You always want to do that face-to-face,” Lewis said. “Anybody can do that over the phone.
“This is family.”