SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Michael Lewis is learning a new system on the fly, and the former Pro Bowl safety is running out of time to absorb all the details of his new game before the serious competition starts.
Sure, Lewis is off to an outstanding start in his new job with the San Francisco 49ers - but it's really cutting into his ability to master Madden NFL '08.
``I've got this playbook I'm trying to get down,'' Lewis said Thursday, gesturing at the thick black binder in his locker. ``I can't worry about Madden's playbook. ... I felt like they made too many changes to the game play. It's difficult. You really have to have the time to sit and go through it. It's too much. Too detailed.''
Like many NFL players, Lewis is a video game devotee - but the former Eagles safety is recognized as one of the league's top virtual talents, winning a pre-Super Bowl tournament two seasons ago and generally thumping all of his teammates on both coasts.
Though Lewis believes Madden is getting too complicated for its own good, he's keeping things simple in his first season with the 49ers after his five-year tenure in Philadelphia ended acrimoniously. Lewis, a Pro Bowler when the Eagles reached the Super Bowl two years ago, lost his starting job to Sean Considine last year and absorbed blame for the club's struggles.
Lewis, who signed with San Francisco alongside cornerback Nate Clements on the first day of free agency, immediately became the 49ers' starting strong safety, providing a physical presence and veteran leadership for a unit that lacked both last season. Coaches praise his work ethic, and he already has landed his share of hard hits in practice and the 49ers' preseason opener.
Indeed, Lewis' biggest struggles in California seem to be happening in front of his Xbox 360.
``He's an excellent tackler and run-stopper, but he's also a determined leader,'' said 49ers cornerback Donald Strickland, who played with Lewis in college at Colorado and again with the Eagles. ``He's played in the Super Bowl, and that's where we're trying to go. He's definitely got the chemistry to bond with the players. He's a well-rounded, likable guy.''
Lewis wasn't well-liked by fickle fans when he left Philadelphia after a string of glaring mistakes last fall. He started every game in three straight seasons with the Eagles, but lost his job amid criticism that he was a glorified linebacker who's more adept at tackling than pass defense.
Though Lewis felt that certain unspecified off-field issues contributed to his fall from favor in Philadelphia, he sees the benefits of moving on.
``They went in a different direction, I went in a different direction,'' Lewis said with a shrug. ``I feel like I'm one of the top safeties in the league, and I'll show it this year. I believe things happen for a reason. It wasn't meant for me to be there any more.''
Lewis got off to a good start in his first action in a 49ers uniform, making five tackles in the first quarter of their exhibition loss to Denver on Monday.
Wearing a red jersey at Candlestick Park was a particular thrill for Lewis, who grew up in Texas as a 49ers fan in a household full of Dallas Cowboys devotees. Lewis claims his love for Merton Hanks, Ronnie Lott and Tim McDonald was a big reason he chose the 49ers.
``It was just the opportunity to play for the team I grew up watching,'' Lewis said. ``That was the main reason I wanted to come here. I grew up rooting for this team, and if you get the opportunity to play for your childhood team, I couldn't pass that up.''
Though the 49ers are using a 3-4 defensive front this season, Lewis' role is much the same as it was in Philadelphia - only with more safety blitzes, a thought that makes Lewis smile. Coach Mike Nolan believes Lewis, Clements and returning Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris have turned the 49ers' weakest defensive unit last season into a strength.
And if Lewis stays rejuvenated by his change of scenery, he hopes his name might someday be mentioned among the great 49ers defensive backs he idolizes.
``I'm still a work in progress,'' he said. ``I know there's some things I've got to work on, but as far as coming to a new team, a new system, my adjustment is where it needs to be right now.''
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