HOUSTON, Texas – A third trip to the Super Bowl and another opportunity to spend a Sunday chasing Tom Brady awaits Dwight Freeney.
The former Indianapolis Colts sackmaster is back in the NFL spotlight as an integral part of the Atlanta Falcons’ pass-rush package that must – absolutely must – exert pressure on Brady. Failing that, the New England Patriots very likely will prevail in Super Bowl LI and Brady will add a record fifth world title to his already-ridiculous resume.
But looking back to when it all began, Freeney never envisioned being in this position. Not closing a 15th season and about to appear in his 231st game. Not still lacing ‘em up and getting after QBs at age 36, and with his 37th birthday two weeks away.
“One of my goals coming in was to get 10 years in. Get 10 years in and you’ll retire after year 10 and you’ll be done and you’ll be happy,” Freeney said.
The timeline began April 20, 2002 when the Colts used the 11th overall pick in the draft on an undersized dynamo out of Syracuse. It remains active after 11 disruptive seasons with the Colts, two with the San Diego Chargers, one with the Arizona Cardinals and, finally, another with the Falcons.
So much for that early career projection. In hindsight, we’ll chalk it up to the naivety of youth.
“I think that never happens the way that players think that’s going to happen as you plan,” he said. “After my 10th year, every year I said, ‘Okay, this is probably it for me.’
“And I keep coming back for whatever reason. I keep coming back, keep coming back. But I never envisioned all of this. I just wanted to go out and play the best way I could and help out the team however I could. If that’s getting sacks, that’s getting sacks. If that’s helping guys get in the right place for them to make sacks, that’s what it is.
“I just want to be an impact and play in these moments as often as possible.”
Then, after dealing with Bill Belichick, again, and chasing Tom Brady, again, the process will commence, again. Freeney will take time, let the emotion of the moment subside and determine if it’s time to retire, or play on.
“I always say, ‘After the year is done,'” he said. “You gotta give it a couple of months to let things die down, let the emotion of whatever’s happening die down a little bit so you can make the best decision for you and your family.
“Sometimes guys make those decisions right when they lose. Sometimes they rush decisions when they win. I like to take all that emotion out and make that decision when it comes.”
If Sunday is it, Freeney exits with a resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. It includes:
- 122.5 sacks, which rank 18th all-time, and trail long-time sidekick Robert Mathis by one-half sack. Mathis, by the way, announced his retirement in December. At some level it would be appropriate if Freeney and Mathis bowed out together.
- an additional 10 postseason sacks, which are tied for 10th all-time.
- 46 forced fumbles.
- reaching the playoffs in 11 of his 15 seasons.
- reaching three Super Bowls and winning one world championship with the possibility of adding a second.
At some level, it would be appropriate if Freeney’s final game comes against Belichick, Brady and the Patriots. He’s faced them 14 times in his career, including three times in the playoffs.
“Yeah, there are a lot of memories. There are a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones,” Freeney said. “The thing is, I try to hate (Brady), but I can’t because he is a good guy. I know him personally off the field, too. He is a good dude.
“We have had a rivalry in the Colts versus the Patriots for years. It was like they were in our division since we played them twice a year because we played them once in the regular season and once in the postseason. We knocked them out, they knocked us out . . . you know it is going to be a battle. You know it is going to be a war.”
The meeting that still resonates occurred in the 2006 AFC Championship game. The Colts overcame a 21-3 first-half deficit and exorcised so many demons by rallying for a 38-34 victory that sent them to Super Bowl XLI. In two previous playoff encounters, the Patriots had eliminated the Colts.
“It was a lot of emotion because it was like, ‘All right, we’re in the Super Bowl. We finally beat the Patriots. Thank God,”’ Freeney said. “We felt unstoppable at that point. Once we beat them, we didn’t care who we faced. We got the Bears. We didn’t care. We said, ‘Good luck trying to stop us.’
“We finally got that gorilla off our back.”
Freeney no longer is the relentless force from the edge, the one that piled up double-digit sack totals seven times with the Colts. Now, he’s a situational player who doubles as a mentor to younger Falcons.
Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks and was asked about Freeney’s influence.
“I can’t even put that into words,” he said.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff extended Freeney’s career because he was convinced he still had more to offer.
“I’m so vehemently opposed to bringing in an older player who is just a cheerleader,” he said, “and he’s far from a cheerleader.”