INDIANAPOLIS – Dwight Freeney was supposed to be too small to play defensive end.
The club’s onlookers made the pronouncement prior to the 2002 draft when Indianapolis had the 11th pick. Surely there was a much more physically-intimidating player who could fill the role.
It had been a number of years since the Colts had drafted a defensive lineman who really had an extended run of success.
Freeney subbed in his first eight games, then was turned loose at Philadelphia – seven tackles, three forced fumbles, one sack, AFC Defensive Player-of-the Week honors.
Freeney staked his claim and served as a disruptive difference-maker during the rest of his Colts days.
Tony Dungy arrived a couple of months prior to that draft, and he and Bill Polian went about restructuring the defense.
Dungy and Polian worked hand-in-hand – the head coach enunciating to the personnel staff the types of players that would make the system tick and the scouts going out to find that talent.
With the offense taking flight after four years of the Peyton Manning era, Freeney’s skill set matched the vision of Dungy and Polian.
“It was the perfect storm when we drafted him,” said Dungy. “We were changing defenses and we knew we were going to have an offense that was going to score. We were going to be predicated on speed and pressuring the passer.
“When we got ahead in a game, we wanted to create opportunities for the defense. If we could get one guy who was going to be a disruptive force, it would change the course of the defense. That was the thought process going into my first draft.”
That the Colts could score was a given. Capitalizing on momentum and having a snowball effect indoors and on turf was part of the equation. Freeney was a tonic.
“Bill had seen Dwight and thought he was exactly the guy I had been talking about,” said Dungy. “We’re sitting at number 11 in the first round and people looked at his size and thought it was too high to draft him. Bill, to his credit, said, ‘If this is going to be the big piece of the puzzle, let’s not worry about where we take Dwight and what other people think. Let’s get the guy who is going to be the perfect piece.’ Dwight was the straw that stirred the drink.”
Freeney stirred up trouble with 13 sacks and nine forced fumble his first season. He duplicated the 10-plus sacks in each of the next three seasons (11.0, 2003; 16.0, 2004; 11.0, 2005).
When Manning set the NFL’s single-season record with 49 touchdown passes in 2004, Freeney became the first Colt ever to win the league’s sack crown.
They were not solo performers on their units, but the tag-team duo helped the club stockpile 522 points and produce the second of an eventual seven straight seasons with at least 12 victories.
“Dwight did just what we hoped for. When we got leads, he was such a dominant force,” said Dungy. “Talking to Rodney Harrison, he said they had different game plans when New England played us, especially when they played us in Indianapolis. There were certain things they wouldn’t do. They weren’t going to let Dwight be one-on-one and get straight rushes.
“Dwight impacted a lot of things. He impacted not only the play on the field, he impacted game plans of what people even tried to do. Dwight was the perfect player for the time and the defense and position.”
Freeney ended his Colts career with 107.5 sacks, nailing 53 different quarterbacks and producing sacks against 27 of 31 teams.
His 25 career multiple-sack games included five with three-plus totals. Of the 17 double-digit sack seasons in Colts history, Freeney has seven.
“Freeney is the absolute, consummate pass rusher,” said Rick Venturi, a 25-year NFL defensive coach. “It started with his ability to run the edge, great explosiveness. He could get off the ball and run the corner on a tackle, and he could cut the corner. He could get upfield and could cut to the quarterback relentlessly.
“Dwight could turn speed to power and come right down the throat of a tackle. Though he was small stature-wise, he had tremendous shock. He could shock a tackle and walk him back into the ball. That’s what separated him from others. Dwight also had the countermove, which was the spin move. He had the three elements that only the great ones have – run the edge, turn speed to power and the great countermove. He’s as good as there was in my era.”
On that fateful draft morning, Dungy and Polian were side-by-side on treadmills. Polian told Dungy he had two choices, “One is a defensive tackle. He’s a power guy who I really think can be a positive guy for us. The other, of course, is Dwight Freeney.”
Said Dungy, “I’ll take speed anytime,” thus adding the straw to a future potent football mix.
2002 (First-round pick, No. 11 overall)
Played 2002-12, GAMES STARTED/PLAYED – 142/163
Notes: Franchise leader with 107.5 sacks, including seven of 17 double-digit sack seasons in club history. With 16 sacks in 2004 is only Colt to win NFL sack title. Nailed 53 opposing QBs and had sacks against 27 teams. Seven-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro. Had 14 All-AFC or All-Pro nods spread over four different seasons. Played in 17 playoff games, starting 16. Ranks eighth in franchise history with 112 regular-season wins. One of 29 NFL players with 100 career sacks.