INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Imagine, before the wave of sacks and forced fumbles and Super Bowls and Pro Bowls and All-Pros – and yes, induction into the Indianapolis Colts’ Ring of Honor – Dwight Freeney didn’t measure up.
Listen to Bill Polian, who spearheaded an exhaustive evaluation of the 2002 NFL draft. The Colts were transitioning from Jim Mora to Tony Dungy, and Dungy’s defensive approach absolutely required something that was missing: a legitimate pass-rush presence.
Freeney had established himself at Syracuse as one of the top prospects on the strength of 34 sacks, 43 pressures and 51 tackles for loss. He was ridiculously quick and strong. He pass-rush arsenal was complete, and featured his Tasmanian devil-ish spin move.
Polian and Dom Anile, his right-hand man in the personnel department, went over every game of Freeney’s career. They talked with folks at Syracuse.
“Dom Anile and I did it separate from the scouts,’’ Polian said. “The consensus was that he was a terrific player, but the height might be a detriment that he couldn’t overcome.’’
“It was 6-1 and change,’’ Polian said.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Freeney measured 1.85 meters. That’s 6-foot, 1.02 inches.
Robert Mathis, who would become Freeney’s partner in crimes against quarterbacks, laughed.
“Dwight is not 6-1,’’ he said. “You can put this in there. Dwight Freeney is not 6-1.
“He’s 6-foot, like me.’’
The point is, Freeney was too short according to the positional measurables Polian and his staff so diligently followed. The absolute minimum for a defensive end: 6-3.
“Generally 6-4 or better was ideal,’’ Polian said. “The argument became can we play with a guy who’s short, but who has everything else that you need to be a star at that position? There had never really been anybody who was that short that went out and had a great career.
“We were bucking the odds so to speak.’’
At one point during the evaluation process, someone mentioned to Polian that Freeney had trouble dealing with Miami offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie. The 6-8, 360-pounder would go 7th overall to the Minnesota Vikings.
Polian went back over the Syracuse-Miami video. He noticed the Hurricanes routinely double-teaming Freeney. And he noticed one play they opted to make it McKinney vs. Freeney.
“The only time Dwight got McKinnie one-on-one he got a sack,’’ Polian said.
“That ended that discussion.’’
Even so, the pre-draft discussion included John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth, a pair of 6-6, 335-pound tackles out of Tennessee. Wendell Bryant, Wisconsin’s 6-5, 300-pound tackle, was in the mix. Miami safety Ed Reed also was in the conversation.
One day with the draft imminent, Polian and Dungy were getting some early-morning time on the treadmill. The decision essentially had been whittled down to Freeney and another defensive lineman, perhaps Henderson.
“I said, ‘OK, Tony, it’s between these two guys. That’s who are choices are going to boil down to, I think. Of the two, which would you prefer?’’’ Polian said, recalling the pivotal conversation. “He said, ‘Listen, Bill. I’ll take speed over anything else any day.’
“I said, ‘OK, fair enough. We’ve made our decision.’ That was it.’’
With the 11th overall pick, the Colts selected the too-short defensive end who would build a resume worthy of consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
John Teerlinck was one of the NFL’s premier pass-rush teachers, and had settled in as Dungy’s defensive line coach in 2002. Imagine his reaction when Dwight Freeney walked through the door.
“We knew he was really good,’’ he said, “but then he became special.’’
Along with Teerlinck’s guidance in positional drills – pounding stand-up blocking dummies, tirelessly working on tomahawk-chop moves and spins and bull-rushes – Freeney’s early development was aided by the presence of left tackle Tarik Glenn. He was a three-time Pro Bowler, who deserved more appearances.
“Tarik was at the top of his game and Tarik and Dwight would have battles,’’ Teerlinck said. “It was always within the rules and they had respect for each other, but believe me, they would compete.
“It was a battle royale.’’
Fast-forward to 2011. Freeney was the established veteran and Anthony Castonzo the fresh face. The Colts selected Castonzo with the 22nd overall pick in the draft and stationed him at left tackle.
Practice – and Freeney – tested Castonzo’s resolve.
“I just remember getting whupped by him on a regular basis in practice,’’ he said. “To this day, I’ve played against a lot of guys in the NFL and he’s still probably the toughest pass rusher I’ve ever played against.
“And I’m not just saying that because he was on my team. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only guy who would say that.’’
Castonzo’s first practice included being introduced to Freeney in one-on-one drills. The rookie versus the pass-rush phenom.
“I was like, ‘Man, I clearly can’t play in the NFL because I’m getting beat so bad,’’’ Castonzo said, shaking his head. “My coach was like, ‘That’s Dwight Freeney. You’re not going to stonewall him. That’s not going to happen.’
“It was his combination of everything: power, speed, moves, just the way he has control of his body He was a pain to block.’’
Freeney was the first building block as Polian and Dungy sought to complement an offense that was absolutely loaded with skill players: Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark and on and on.
The second cornerstone: Robert Mathis. He’s Dwight Freeney’s brother from another mother. And one-half of the Colts’ “closers.’’
That was the name Teerlinck affixed to his bookend pass-rush terrors. The blueprint was simple.
“We had Peyton and we knew we were going to have the lead and we were going to play with the lead. We had to have ‘closers,’’’ Teerlinck said. “We didn’t call them edge pass rushers. Our ends were linebackers and our tackles were ends.
“We went with all speed and quickness. It was a real advantage at that time because the NFL, and especially the AFC, was filled with huge, monstrous offensive tackles that couldn’t bend over and touch their toes.’’
Starting with Freeney and adding Mathis a year later, Teerlinck maximized his unquestioned advantage.
“We taught ‘dip’ moves,’’ he said. “I remember Tony would ask me before a game and I’d tell him, ‘They won’t be able to touch our ends.’
“Our guys would go 1-2-dip, 1-2-dip. The third step they’re dipping. (Tackles) would go 1-2-punch and there was no one there. We were excited with what we did with Dwight and Robert.’’
Freeney sits 18th all-time with 125.5 sacks, and 107.5 came in 11 seasons with the Colts. Mathis is 19th on the NFL’s career list with 123, all during his 14 seasons with Indy.
“I’m gonna beat my chest – I think we’re the greatest duo pass rush-wise,’’ Mathis said. “Numbers don’t lie. Men and women lie. The media does, too.
“It was the pressure we put on ourselves to keep up with each other.’’
Freeney wasn’t an immediate difference-maker. He amassed 4 sacks in his first eight games as a rookie while coming off the bench.
“It took him about eight games to adapt to the NFL, to what John Teerlinck was teaching him, to learn how to use his gifts properly,’’ Polian said. “He was kind of average for the first eight games.
“Then, boy, he took off like a rocket.’’
His first start came Nov. 10 at Philadelphia. In a 35-13 blowout of the Eagles, Freeney was a game-long force. He had just one sack of Donovan McNabb, but forced three fumbles to go along with six solo tackles.
Freeney, the too-short rookie, finished with a franchise record 13 sacks. It was the first of four straight double-digit sack seasons, and seven overall.
He used his speed, his lower-body strength, his leverage. He tortured tackles with his spin move, which had served him so well as a power forward in basketball.
“I used to get called for traveling all the time,’’ Freeney explained. “I’d get the ball in the post, I’d do my little drop step and I’d get called for traveling all day . . . all day. I didn’t think I traveled. So I couldn’t really do the basketball thing.
“So I got on the football field and the coach was like, ‘Dwight, I don’t care how you get there, just get there. Just make the guy miss.’ So I was pretty good at traveling or spinning or drop-stepping or whatever it was, and I just kind of incorporated that into my game of football.
“It started in high school and I just kept running with it. It became a natural thing.’’
Mathis said he, too, relied on the spin move at an early age. He also admitted pass rushers never hesitate to do their homework, and glean from others.
“Make no mistake about it,’’ he said, “in the world of pass rush, we steal moves. Period.’’
Sometimes, though, that isn’t possible.
Justin Houston has 84.5 sacks, including a team-high 6 with the Colts. He’s tried to incorporate Freeney’s spin move into his repertoire.
“You never saw me hit a spin move,’’ he said. “I don’t know how to spin. I thought about it and tried it, but it just didn’t look as good as his so I left it alone.’’
Freeney’s name will be added to the Ring of Honor Sunday. So many of his former teammates are expected to be on hand to share the moment, and rehash all those indelible moments.
It will be a special afternoon for Freeney, and Mathis. They talk or text on a regular basis. Freeney was a groomsman in Mathis’ wedding.
“When he gets into town, I’m generally the first person he calls,’’ Mathis said. “We go out, have dinner, catch up, just laugh. It wasn’t like he was just a teammate and once we’re out of the building we have no contact.
“We consider ourselves brothers, friends for life. Until he moved from Indy we lived literally five houses from each other. I’d say two weeks won’t pass without a text. Just ‘What’s up? You good?’’’
Yes, Dwight Freeney is good.
More to the point, Dwight Freeney was very good – Ring of Honor good, and maybe more – for someone who almost didn’t measure up.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.