A look at some of the Colts' top picks and performers through the years at defensive line
It was early on draft day in 2002. Head coach Tony Dungy and team president Bill Polian, gearing up for a long day in the draft room, exercised at the Colts' training facility. The team owned the 11th pick in the first round.
"I don't know if I've told this story very often, but Tony and I were side by side on the treadmills the morning of the draft," Polian said recently as he recounted the Colts' drafting of fleet defensive end Dwight Freeney. "I said to him that we have 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.
"And I said, 'It's a question of power versus speed.' "
Dungy, in his first season with the Colts and trying to build the defense on a foundation of swiftness and hard pursuit, looked at Polian and grinned.
"I'll take speed anytime," Dungy said.
So speed it was.
Now, after nine prolific seasons in Indianapolis, Freeney has spun, sprinted and stunted his way to 94 sacks. He has stripped ball-carriers and quarterbacks for 41 forced fumbles.
And since 2003 when the Colts drafted Robert Mathis in the fifth round, Mathis at left end and Freeney at right end have created a legacy of greatness, combining for 155 sacks and 68 forced fumbles.
When Freeney's career at Syracuse had ended and he entered the 2002 NFL Draft, there was concern about his 6-foot-1 frame. Many draft analysts and observers dismissed him as too short in an era when defensive ends were arriving in packages that often measured 6-3 or taller. As Polian remembered it, even some longtime NFL scouts and "people who knew football" were wary about selecting a speedy, but smallish defensive end.
But Polian, Dungy and the Colts did all the requisite homework. Speed on the edges was critically important for Dungy's defensive scheme, and the team left no videotape unviewed in its quest to assure Freeney was the right choice. They saw a player whose skills were commanding double-team attention regularly, even at Syracuse.
The Colts called Paul Pasqualoni, then the Syracuse coach, for his thoughts.
"Paul Pasqualoni made it clear to us that (Freeney) had a unique work ethic, a unique pride to drive him to try to be the best," Polian said.
The Colts president knows the team likely has watched a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate for the past nine seasons. But for the 31-year-old Freeney, who shows few signs of slowing down, Polian also hopes the Hall of Fame consideration "is quite some time from now" and Freeney continues to lead the defense.
"(Freeney), too, was the beneficiary of a great set of circumstances," Polian said. "Tony believed in him because Tony believed in outside speed. He thought that was the key to success in his defense, which of course has been widely copied by everybody and widely used now throughout football.
"Secondly, we had (defensive line coach) John Teerlinck, who believed in pass rush and believed in (Freeney) and believed that he didn't necessarily have to be 6-3 or 6-4 to succeed. So Tony and John, combined with Dwight's toughness and ferocity and incredible pride to be the best, really created a situation where Dwight could thrive."
There were NFL growing pains, to be sure. Freeney accounted for 13 sacks and nine forced fumbles as a rookie in 2002, but he wasn't satisfied. If a game ended without a sack for him, he wondered if he had done his job.
"Maybe when I was young, in 2002, I would have an anxiety attack when I didn't have a sack," Freeney said last December in a question-and-answer session for the team's game program. "I'd come home saying, 'I can't believe I didn't make a play this week.' Those things happen in the National Football League.
"I'm not saying I don't still feel bad about not making plays, but I'm more understanding of why it happens. It's not all because of what I can do and what I can't. Sometimes, it's not possible. Sometimes, they're loading up and you have to wait for an opportunity."
Opportunity is what came to Mathis, now Freeney's running mate at defensive end, in 2003. The Alabama A&M product arrived in Indianapolis and quickly etched his mark on special teams.
Like Freeney, the 6-2 Mathis was considered by some observers to be undersized, but that didn't faze him as he started seeing more action at end and began collecting double-digit totals in sacks by his second NFL season. And when Mathis makes tackles and sacks, he delivers with what Polian and his scouting staff call "punch."
"He's physically as tough as anybody who has played the game," Polian said. "Dwight is 265 pounds and Robert is not that. I won't reveal what he is because I think he's a little sensitive about it, but he's not 265. But he has an absolutely incredible ability to use every sinew in his body to hit people. That has never lessened over the years, which is in itself incredible."
Mathis' personality in the locker room is not unlike that of former Colts stars Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James. They shunned the spotlight. They spoke seldom. But they commanded attention when needed.
Mathis, Polian noted, "has very little to say. (But) when he says it, he's like the old commercial (for financial company) E.F. Hutton. When Robert talks, everyone listens. He's revered by his peers and looked up to by every player in the locker room."
The Colts consummated a trade of mid-round picks with Houston in 2003 to get Mathis. Then, in time, he moved into the starting lineup with Freeney. It has been a winning proposition ever since.
"Because of Tony's system and the way John teaches defensive line players, (Mathis and Freeney) were able to flourish," Polian said. "For two great players and two great guys, the right place at the right time, which certainly helped their careers."
MORE NOTABLE COLTS D-LINEMEN AT A GLANCEHere's a look at some of the team's top defensive linemen, listed chronologically:
Donnell Thompson, 1981 first-rounder: The standout defensive end, from the University of North Carolina, played his entire 11-year career with the Colts, starting 143 games and collecting 40 sacks and eight fumble recoveries. Thompson's best sack years came in 1985, when he had 5.0 and helped the Indianapolis team to its first playoff appearance, and in 1989 with 7.0.
Jon Hand, 1986 first-rounder: A defensive end from Alabama, Hand played nine seasons in Indianapolis and totaled 35.5 sacks and 537 tackles. He led the team in sacks three times. After football, Hand and his wife, Tanya, remained in Indianapolis and started JT's Hand Neonatal Foundation to help patients and families in local neonatal intensive care units. It was named after their son, who was born 15 weeks premature in 1995 and lived only 28 days.
Tony Siragusa, 1990 undrafted free agent: The University of Pittsburgh product went undrafted but quickly worked his way into the Indianapolis lineup for six starts as a rookie nose tackle. He played seven seasons for the Colts at inside positions. In 1994, he made five sacks, totaled 88 tackles and forced two fumbles.
Tony McCoy, 1992 fourth-rounder: From the University of Florida, he played eight productive seasons in Indianapolis. He totaled 23 sacks from his tackle position, including six in both 1994 and 1998. He also was in on 327 tackles.
Ellis Johnson, 1995 first-rounder: The University of Florida standout collected 33 sacks and 270 tackles in seven seasons with the Colts. He also intercepted two passes, forced four fumbles and recovered three fumbles while playing mostly inside.
Chad Bratzke, 1999 unrestricted free agent: The Eastern Kentucky product came to the Colts after five seasons with the New York Giants. In five years in Indianapolis, Bratzke made 37 sacks and 238 tackles with six forced fumbles. He also became a mentor for fellow defensive end Dwight Freeney, who was the Colts' top pick in 2002. "He taught me the ropes," Freeney said last December about Bratzke. "He taught me how to be a pro. Watching him, watching how he used to grind, watching how he used to play – it wasn't always easy for Chad. Chad wasn't the fastest guy ... but he played hard and he played the game like it was supposed to be played. Chad was one of the best guys who could have ever molded me into the game."
Raheem Brock, waiver acquisition in 2002: Philadelphia released the speedy Brock, who went on to have a solid career with the Colts. In eight Indianapolis seasons, he made 28.5 sacks and 289 stops. He recovered 15 fumbles and forced 12.