AP File Photo
Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney celebrates after a sack. On Sunday, Freeney could be making his last appearance in front of the home crowd.
INDIANAPOLIS — Dwight Freeney understands the predicament.
He’ll be 33 in February, his sack totals have declined each of the last three years and this year’s salary cap hit was a staggering $19.035 million, the highest in football. Even Freeney knows that’s not a good combination to take into contract talks with the Colts.
So no matter how much Freeney wants to finish his career in the same place he started it, he will try to savor every moment Sunday against Houston in what will likely be his home finale in Indianapolis.
“This could be it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens for me and my career later and what they decide to do. Those are all business decisions for both of us. But yeah, I think the later in your career, the older you get and especially when your contract is what it is, you have to sit there and say, ‘Hey this might be it, man.’ Just take in as much as you can take in.”
Whatever happens next, there’s no doubting what Freeney has meant to this franchise over the years.
Tony Dungy and Bill Polian took the 266-pound pass rusher with the 11th overall pick in the 2002 draft as the cornerstone for their defense, even when the critics contended the choice was a reach. They argued Freeney was the quintessential small, quick college defensive end who would be nothing more than a third-down pass rush specialist against the NFL’s mammoth offensive linemen — and they were wrong.
Despite starting only the final eight games as a rookie, Freeney still broke the Colts’ single-season franchise record with 13 sacks, was named the AFC’s defensive rookie of the month in November and December that season and finished second to Julius Peppers in balloting for defensive rookie of the year.
And he never really slowed down.
Freeney won battles on the line of scrimmage with his blazing speed and spin move, something teammates and opponents continue to try and emulate. He created nightmares for opposing linemen not only because of his ability to get to the quarterback but to knock the ball loose in the same motion. He teamed with Robert Mathis to form one of the league’s most feared pass rushes for nearly a decade.
Fans appreciated his celebrations, a simple salute to those who showed up on Sunday afternoons, and players embraced his simple, down-to-earth approach to the game and life.
“We’ve been playing together 10 years so that speaks for itself,” said Mathis, who joined the Colts in 2003. “It’s almost like we formed a brotherhood. It’s deeper than just a teammate. We call it ‘9398 Bring the Heat Boulevard.’ We kind of coined that term, so we want to keep it going as long as we can.”
Freeney is the franchise’s career sacks leader (106½), the only Colts player to win a league sacks title (16 in 2004) and his seven Pro Bowl appearances are tied for fifth in franchise-history with Lenny Moore. The only Colts with more Pro Bowl selections are Peyton Manning (11), Gino Marchetti and John Unitas (10 each) and Jim Parker (eight). Marchetti, Unitas, Parker and Moore are all Hall of Fame members, and Marchetti is the only Colts’ defender to appear in more all-star games than Freeney.
When the playoffs end, the Colts will have to make the decision about re-signing Freeney or letting him go.
A year ago, Freeney watched the Colts say goodbye to four-time MVP Manning, running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Gary Brackett, tight end Dallas Clark, center Jeff Saturday and receiver Pierre Garcon. Receiver Reggie Wayne was so certain he would be caught in last season’s overhaul that he packed up his locker and took down his nameplate a few days before the 2011 season finale at Jacksonville. He wound up coming back, a move that may go down as the Colts’ best offseason player move outside of taking Andrew Luck in the draft.
Indy also gave Mathis a big contract and the converted linebacker, like Wayne, rewarded the Colts with another Pro Bowl season.
The questions about Freeney, though, are different.
He was most effective in the traditional 4-3 defense, and after switching to the 3-4 for the first time this season, Freeney has only 18 tackles and four quarterback sacks. Those numbers are down from 2011, when he had 19 tackles and 8 ½ sacks, which was down from 25 tackles and 10 sacks in 2010. And that was down from 2009 when Freeney had 31 tackles and 13½ sacks.
So the Colts must decide whether he fits into this defense, and if so, how much he’s worth on a team that continues to build for the future?
“You don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the day. The strangest things happen. Look at last year, everybody thought Peyton would be here and he’s not,” Freeney said. “I guess we will figure it out when the season is over. I just appreciate everything this city has done for me, the fans have done for me. It’s been a great ride and hopefully we can continue it.”
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