For a player with Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials, Dwight Freeney is generating surprisingly scant NFL buzz while making a return from a torn quadriceps.
That’s going to change once more folks start seeing how good he looks.
Just ask San Diego Chargers left tackle King Dunlap. He dropped into position to block Freeney in a pass rush drill on the second day of training camp practices. The outside linebacker fired off the line of scrimmage, dipped, made a trademark spin move and left the much larger Dunlap in the dust as Freeney’s defensive teammates burst into cheers.
“He tends to do that to people,” Chargers safety Eric Weddle said with a smile.
Entering his 13th season, Freeney is sixth among all active players in sacks with 108. He also was a member of the league’s all-decade team for the 2000s while playing for Indianapolis.
But Freeney’s NFL future was cast in doubt last year when his quadriceps ripped four games into the 2013 season. The Chargers had signed Freeney to a two-year, $8.75 million contract after a new Colts regime allowed one of that franchise’s most storied players to leave as a free agent. If he couldn’t recover and display the same explosiveness at age 34, Freeney wouldn’t be back with San Diego in 2014.
The Chargers, though, never lost faith in Freeney. Proof of that came during San Diego’s playoff run. Most teams don’t travel with injured players who aren’t part of their plans. Freeney made the trip to postseason games at Cincinnati and Denver.
“It wasn’t so easy,” Freeney said following Saturday’s practice. “I’m the type of guy where you get me anywhere within five feet of the field and I’m going to run on it. But I knew I had to be there for my teammates.
“I couldn’t walk for the first month or two without crutches. The doctor wouldn’t allow it. When they felt I was safe to go out there, I popped my head in to make sure I was around and could help the young guys a little bit. Inspire them in the playoffs or whatever.”
Freeney’s love of football inspired him to pursue a comeback in 2014. He even took a $1 million pay cut to remain with the Chargers.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “While you’re here every day it’s like, ‘Oh man, I’m tired of seeing these guys. Every single day it’s the same faces.’ But when you’re gone – and I’ve been gone for a while – I couldn’t wait to get back around the guys and really show how much I missed it. I wasn’t ready to call it quits.”
The Chargers are fortunate Freeney felt that way. Bolstering the pass defense is a must if San Diego is to topple Denver in the AFC West title race. The Chargers ranked near the bottom of the league last year in yards allowed, interceptions and sacks. The emphasis on improvement is symbolized through the “TD” message – turnovers and disrupt – emblazoned on T-shirts being worn at training camp.
“He plays a premium position that we need help at,” said Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, who worked in the Colts’ front office when Freeney starred there. “We know he can still play. Not only that, but it’s what he does with the young players and the wisdom and techniques he’s learned over the years that he shares. He still has some pass rush in him.”
Because outside linebacker Melvin Ingram didn’t return from an offseason knee injury until December, the Chargers never had their best two pass rushers on the field at the same time in 2013. Ingram and Freeney will now be complemented by 2014 second-round pick Jerry Attaochu, who set Georgia Tech’s career sacks record with 31. Coach Mike McCoy also said the pass rush should benefit from better cornerback coverage. The Chargers signed ex-Kansas City starter Brandon Flowers in June and selected Texas Christian’s Jason Verrett – whom Freeney described “as a blur” on the practice field — in the first round.
Freeney knows his days as an every-down player are over, but he has embraced a situational role.
“If it has to be a changing line like hockey, where you rotate every 30 seconds, I don’t care,” Freeney said. “The more guys to affect the quarterback the better.”
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers knows that first-hand, which is why he’s excited Freeney is still in San Diego.
“You look at an injury like that with an older player and you never know,” Rivers said of Freeney’s torn quadriceps. “I remember us all amongst ourselves asking, ‘Do you think Freeney is going to give it another go?’ He’s really committed to getting himself healthy.
“I know it’s early and you don’t like to get over-enamored with certain things, but he looks really good. And I’m glad he’s not in that Colts helmet coming after me anymore.”
Freeney will instead focus on going after other quarterbacks, including one in the AFC West who also once wore a Colts helmet – Denver’s Peyton Manning.
“There’s nothing like a motivated veteran who has played at a high level for a number of years who wants to contribute,” Weddle said.
The NFL should be reminded of that soon enough.
All Chargers interviews were conducted by Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio.