Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Dwight Freeney says he’s more Magic Johnson than LeBron James.
But whether one of the NFL’s top all-time pass rushers gets to finish his football career with the same team that drafted him is hardly a slam dunk.
After 10 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Freeney has no interest in taking his athletic talents elsewhere, as James did when he bolted the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat. Freeney, though, knows his days in Indianapolis may be numbered.
The Colts are adopting a new defensive system, and Freeney’s lucrative contract expires at the end of the 2012 season. This raises the possibility of a trade, even though team management has stuck with Freeney during the early stages of retooling the roster.
Asked about his Colts future during a Tuesday night interview with me and co-host Bill Polian on Sirius XM NFL Radio, Freeney said: “I’m kind of old-school when it comes to that thought. I’m not LeBron trying to leave the team. I’m more like the era of Magic and (New York Giants linebacker) Lawrence Taylor, who stayed with that same team for their entire careers win, lose or draw. They were married to the city they were drafted in. You go through the tough times and great times with them, and that’s it. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen. I can get traded. They may want to go in a different direction. Maybe I can’t handle the (defensive) scheme. You have all those possibilities. But, personally, I would love to stay.”
The Colts’ decision to keep Freeney is somewhat surprising considering the change in defense and how many other veterans the club released this offseason. The bloodletting included plenty of Freeney’s contemporaries, including quarterback Peyton Manning. The 32-year-old Freeney also is due to collect a $14 million base salary in the final year of his contract.
Freeney said he still hasn’t adjusted to all the new faces the Colts have added.
“I feel like I’m in a whole other dimension,” a laughing Freeney said. “I’m used to walking in the locker room and there’s Peyton’s locker to the right and all these other guys who were there. Now, it’s like everything has shifted around.
“I got lost in the locker room today. They built a locker right where I always walk to get my laundry clothes. I almost walked into the locker. It’s completely different. But I do understand what this game is. Things have to change eventually. It’s never the same team (annually), regardless of whether it’s four or five guys or 20. That’s the nature of the beast, especially when you don’t win.”
A 2-14 record in 2011 was the impetus for a massive Colts overhaul that included the firing of Polian as team president and Jim Caldwell as head coach. Caldwell’s replacement, Chuck Pagano, is installing the same style of 3-4 scheme that he ran last season as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator. Freeney and Robert Mathis will shift from being traditional 4-3 defensive ends to outside linebackers aligned in various spots, with occasional coverage responsibilities.
Freeney is in the early stages of that transition with the Colts having opened their offseason program last month.
“For me, it’s just getting familiar with all those nuances,” said Freeney, whose 102.5 career sacks rank behind only Atlanta’s John Abraham (112) and Minnesota’s Jared Allen (105) among active players. “My line of sight, walking around (pre-snap), dropping into coverage — I’m doing those things. It’s going to take a little time at the beginning to get used to and as comfortable as I have been having my hand in the ground (at end) and being in one position.”
Freeney hopes those efforts ultimately pay dividends by making it more difficult for opposing offenses to game plan against him. Polian said Freeney and Mathis were recipients of double-teams on 83 percent of the Colts’ offensive snaps over the past couple of seasons.
“This is probably going to benefit me because I’m not in a ‘blackboard position’ where (offenses) know exactly where I am and what we’re going to do,” said Freeney, who was selected by Polian as a 2002 first-round draft choice because he fit the profile of an ideal speed rusher in a “Tampa-two” defense.
“We’re going to be coming with various blitzes from different sides. I’ll be moving around, so I’ll be harder to find.”
Freeney won’t be stealth when it comes to helping the Colts compensate for the leadership lost when Manning was released. Pagano told FOXSports.com in March that he considers Freeney, Mathis and 12-year wide receiver Reggie Wayne the “three pillars” of the team’s locker room.
“It’s, obviously, very tough to fill in all the things that Peyton did,” Freeney said. “We all know the on-the-field, but there was a lot of leadership stuff off the field. Just making sure everybody was on the same page and being a presence in the offseason to make sure you’re around and the younger guys see that you’re working hard and it’s OK to do that.
“Those are the intangibles that people don’t know that Peyton was great at. Those were some of the things we loved him for. Obviously, with him leaving, it creates that void. It’s really going to take all of us (veterans) to fill that void and try to groom these young guys so they understand what Colt ball is all about.”
Helping the Colts get back on track is another one of Freeney’s biggest goals — even if he might not still be there by the time that foundation is done being laid.
“Yeah, we lost a lot of guys, but we’re not laying down for anybody,” he said. “Everybody likes to throw around this ‘rebuilding.’ For us, we’re going out like it’s 2005, ’06, ’07 and ’08. We’re going to give everybody our best. That’s what we do.”