Dwight Freeney's departure from Indianapolis won't immediately and radically reshape the NFL landscape the way his former teammate Peyton Manning’s did a year ago, but there is no denying the significance of the move as it relates to the continued sea change of the Colts.
Indianapolis’ all-time sacks and forced fumbles leader, Freeney, more than any of his Colts teammates over the past decade, epitomized Bill Polian's need for speed on defense. In order to play their preferred Tampa-2 scheme, the Colts sacrificed size and brute strength for defenders who could flat out fly.
And while we don't normally associate defensive linemen with "flying," per se, Freeney was a lot like a superhero. Except his superpowers were speed, leverage and that devastating, paralyzing, often unstoppable spin move.
Only, last season, Freeney was finally overmatched. Father time rarely loses. Freeney, who will turn 33 next week, didn’t have his usual burst and edge domination — for whatever reason. Whether age, injury (Freeney suffered a high ankle sprain in the opening minutes of the 2012 season and often cited his injury as a reason for his struggles the rest of the way) or a system that simply didn’t suit him (he never looked comfortable in a two-point stance), Freeney looked, for essentially the first time in his otherwise dominant 11-year career, mortal. A pedestrian five sacks confirmed this sad truth.
Can he still be productive in the right situation, ideally one that allows him put his hand back on the ground and use whatever is left of his once-unparalleled speed and leverage to get upfield and chase down QBs? I think so. The more closely resembling his old surroundings in Indianapolis, the better. In addition to finding a fast, one-gap system, Freeney latching on with a team that plays indoors, on turf — and preferably one with an explosive offense, which allows him to again play the role of closer and demoralizer — would surely work best.
But that isn't these Colts. Not anymore.
Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson are looking for bigger, younger, sturdier, more physical football players.
They’ve deemed — correctly — that’s no longer Freeney. And that’s OK.
It’s certainly no slight of Freeney, for whom Jim Irsay wasted no time reserving a spot in the franchise’s cherished “Ring of Honor.”
It’s by no means an indictment of Grigson and Pagano; contrarily, it’s a smart, sound football decision, which, lest we forget, is a merciless, mostly young man’s game.
And, as we well know, the most successful organizations are the ones that are constantly evolving.
The Colts of yesterday were defined by Manning's precision offense and a breakneck defense, led by Freeney and partner in larceny, Robert Mathis.
The Colts of today, Andrew Luck's Colts, are still finding their defensive identity, but the goal is to be big and nasty, and bring pressure from all directions.
Freeney, at this stage of his career, doesn’t fit that description. (He never did, for that matter, but he fit, and, in a lot of ways, personified, the old plan perfectly.)
Again, it’s OK. Sure, Colts fans will have a heavy heart watching a defense that no longer includes Freeney. But he will be properly paid tribute to by the organization and, remember, the Colts have been very good to him. Freeney earned $3.8 million per sack in 2012. He netted almost $2.4 million per tackle! The Colts didn’t have to absorb that blow, especially since they had to have a pretty good idea he was going to be a square peg in a round hole.
There is no replacing Freeney, one of the more dominant edge players in the history of the NFL. Yet, for all the Colts’ success last season — and if you find someone who says they predicted the Colts would win 11 games and reach the postseason, please don’t let them pitch you on a nice bridge for sale — they compiled just 32 sacks and, more importantly, the second-lowest number of takeaways in the entire league.
That point shouldn’t be lost here.
The Colts can’t replace Freeney, but they darn sure better find a way to get more disruptive. (Hint: that doesn't mean you, Jerry Hughes.)
Pass rushers come in all shapes, styles and sizes. Outside of shoring up Luck's protection, finding one just became arguably the Colts' top priority.
Just don't expect them to find one like Freeney, truly one of a kind.
And that's OK.