There wasn't much left for Marcedes Lewis to prove when the Jacksonville Jaguars unexpectedly released their longtime tight end in March 2018.
Lewis finished his run with the Jaguars second in franchise history with 33 touchdowns and third with 4,502 receiving yards. He'd been to a Pro Bowl, played in an AFC title game and achieved most could ever hope to accomplish as a veteran of 12 NFL seasons.
His release, which took Lewis by surprise, could have signaled the end of the line for the 6-foot-6, 267-pound tight end. At 33, Lewis could have moved on to any number of post-football ventures and nobody would have blamed him.
Yet, there was a driving force fanning the football flame inside Lewis. After contemplating his future for weeks, Lewis took a call from the Packers that spring with an offer to continue his football career with two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Suddenly, Lewis had his purpose.
"'12' was my biggest motivator," Lewis said. "Coming here, when I first took my trip, I just got the vibe we were on the same page. Our relationship has kind of flourished and grown in that way."
Over the past two years, Lewis has not only developed a connection with Rodgers but also become a respected voice in the Packers' locker room. He speaks before games, and occasionally afterwards, and helps lead a talented, diverse collection of players that has Green Bay sitting at 9-3 entering Sunday's Week 14 tilt with Washington.
Lewis isn't a "U-rah-rah" type. He doesn't scream. He doesn't shout. His message isn't based on hyperbole or theatrics. He speaks about accountability, truth and life, because the leaders who resonated with him most in his formative years were the ones who said the least but with the most passion.
“His vibe and how he carries himself is very magnetic and people attract to him very easily” TE Robert Tonyan
One of those people was his grandmother, Florence Snow, who would tell Lewis as a kid to "keep working" because "life is fair" if you stay committed and control what you can control.
Once Lewis got to the NFL in 2006, former All-Pro running back Fred Taylor left an indelible impact on him, as well. As teammates in Jacksonville during Lewis' first three NFL seasons, Taylor was a lead-by-example veteran who held teammates to his standard. Lewis never wanted to let him down.
Now in his 14th season, and still eying a Super Bowl ring, the "Big Dog," as Rodgers calls him, has become that same veteran voice for the Packers.
"His vibe and how he carries himself is very magnetic and people attract to him very easily," second-year tight end Robert Tonyan said. "The type of person he is, is the type of person I want to be. How confident, how comfortable and how calm he is in everything he does, but also how wise, experienced and how much he's been through. He's just real person-to-person with people and that's how he presents to the team."
The memory still brings a smile to Jimmy Graham's face when he thinks back to the first time he met Lewis.
It was 2011 and Lewis had just signed a lucrative extension to remain in Jacksonville on the heels of a 58-catch, 700-yard season in which he scored 10 touchdowns, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Graham, a third-round pick by New Orleans in 2010, had just banked his first 100-yard game a week prior to the Saints' Week 4 matchup with Lewis' Jaguars – a four-catch, 100-yard showing against Houston in a 40-33 win.
Still relatively unheralded at the time, Graham caught 10 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown that day against the Jaguars in New Orleans' 23-10 victory. A friendship was born between the two when Lewis praised Graham after the performance.
"He just told me to keep my head down and keep working and I have a lot of potential," Graham said. "You know, it's special to play with somebody that you looked up to for so long. Clearly, I've watched a lot of film on him. I remember his game where he scored two or three touchdowns, and was jumping over people."
Lewis had never met Rodgers before coming to Green Bay, though they shared a mutual friend. "Justin Timberlake," says Lewis, in a matter-of-fact tone. Lewis also consulted Graham, who signed with the Packers two months prior, about Rodgers and that conversation helped sell Lewis on the idea of Green Bay.
The fairytale ending would have been Lewis signing with the Packers and finding immediate success, but that wasn't the case. He caught only three passes for 37 yards and played a career-low 191 offensive snaps. Comparatively, in his final season with Jacksonville, Lewis led all Jaguars' skill-position players in 2017 with 895 offensive snaps (79%), according to FootballOutsiders.com.
Lewis didn't care so much about the lack of production in the offense as much as the disappointment of a 6-9-1 season. Despite all that, Lewis' disposition never changed and Rodgers respected that.
"I just think last year was such a telling season," Rodgers said. "You've got a guy who's been to Pro Bowls, who's had a double-digit touchdown season, and to have a very limited role in the passing game but to see his attitude the entire year and his leadership opportunities taken the way they were taken was a thing of beauty."
Lewis initially debated whether to return for a 14th season, but it turned out to be the right decision. Since Lewis re-signed with Green Bay in March, 2019 has brought out the best in him, both as a tight end and a teammate.
Under Head Coach Matt LaFleur, Lewis had a more defined role in the offense. With four regular-season games remaining, he's nearly doubled his workload from a year ago in playing 354 offensive snaps (43.3%).
More than just a blocking tight end in LaFleur's scheme, Lewis has complemented the offense with 11 receptions for 131 yards this season, including a very emotional touchdown catch from Rodgers in last Sunday's 31-13 win over the New York Giants.
With a little more than seven minutes remaining, and the Packers a yard from the Giants' end zone, Rodgers barked out "Big Dog! Big Dog! Big Dog!" before rolling out and throwing a pass where only Lewis could catch it.
"Marcedes represents so much of this game," said Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who spent two seasons with Lewis in Jacksonville. "Anytime you see a guy like that have a chance to get a touchdown and then have to actually really work at it and make that play and Aaron getting it to him, it was great.
"I wish there was a million guys like that because he's a very good dude."
For all the attention thrust upon Lewis for that catch, Rodgers points towards Green Bay's 37-8 letdown in San Francisco a week earlier as Lewis' shining moment. In reviewing the game, LaFleur gave his postgame speech to the players before reaching forward to break down the team huddle.
Lewis, looking to add a player's voice, stepped forward and said he had something to say. For the next few minutes, the veteran had the attention of every person in the room. He spoke passionately about preparation, accountability and how the two affect not only your performance but that of the entire team.
"After the Niner game, he said some incredible words to us. He's done that on a regular basis all season," Rodgers said. "I have so much respect for his ability to feel those moments and understand exactly what needs to be said clearly and direct and to the point and not mixing words. It just shows what kind of person he is and I just have a ton of respect for that."
If more than a decade spent in the NFL has taught Lewis anything, it's that there is way too much parity to rest on your laurels. Every day from the first practice of training camp to the final game of the season is about staying on top of things in order to rise above the razor-thin margin for error among the league's 32 teams.
“I wish there was a million guys like that because he’s a very good dude.” Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett
Lewis picks his spots on when to address the room. When he does, Lewis speaks from the heart. He isn't pulling speeches from his dresser. From Tonyan's point of view, that's what makes Lewis' words even more empowering. In the visiting locker room in San Francisco, Lewis felt compelled to do something.
"I just saw a bunch of heads down and I just felt like it was time," said Lewis, recalling the speech. "At that point in time, we were 8-2 or whatever it was. We went out there and were not prepared. For one reason or another, we didn't focus in on the details like we should have. My speech was more so, 'OK, let's assess what happened. This is what happened. Well, how do we get better from it?'
"The way you do small things, and the way you do all things, continue to add up if we don't nip it in the butt now. Some of those things not even being football-related, just housekeeping. Taking care of the things you're supposed to take care of so you don't have to worry about those certain things – just focus only on ball."
In 13-plus seasons, Lewis has been to the playoffs on only two occasions – a loss to New England in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs in 2007 and the Jaguars' nail-biting 24-20 loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game in 2017.
There was a time in Green Bay, from 2009-16, that some players didn't know what it was like to not play in the postseason. That changed over the past two years, which makes the opportunity in front of the Packers right now so valuable.
Lewis is more aware than anyone in the locker room how quickly these moments pass. Even though his individual role is different in Year 14 than it was in Year 4, he's still driven to compete, improve and win.
"That journey and being proud of that journey, for me, I've always been that way," Lewis said. "I'm always focused on the things that I'm doing Monday through Saturday. That's the work. Sunday we just get to flow. It feels good to be winning, but at the same time, you always have to honest and understand that you still got more work to do."
The impact Lewis has had on Green Bay's locker room is palpable. Tonyan even mentioned that to Lewis at a recent practice. If Lewis says something, people listen because of how authentic he is and his ability to say the right thing at the right time.
"I feel that I bring value in many ways and feel like I could be an integral piece to this organization, and this team potentially making a Super Bowl and winning it.” TE Marcedes Lewis
From a football standpoint, even a 10-year veteran like Graham has learned a thing or two from Lewis the past two years. He credits Lewis for helping him hone his blocking technique at this stage of his career. A bond that began with a simple compliment in 2011 has morphed into them being "brothers," Graham said.
Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, one of four remaining players from the Packers' Super Bowl XLV team, sees Lewis' leadership having wide-reaching implications for this roster. His selflessness isn't just something that makes this team better, but it also rubs off on the younger players asked to fill niche roles.
When asked if he made the right decision coming back, Lewis replies, "No question," without any hesitation. Because his value goes past his voice, the "Big Dog" can still play and Lewis takes pride doing what's asked of him every Sunday.
"I truly believe I still am a really good player and I'm still ascending, and still getting better," Lewis said. "I can still get out on the field and catch the ball if I need to. The way I block at the line of scrimmage, that's old school. I feel that I bring value in many ways and feel like I could be an integral piece to this organization, and this team potentially making a Super Bowl and winning it."