(Eds: Updates, corrects keyword line. With AP Photos.)By MICHAEL MAROTAP Sports Writer
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were virtually inseparable as Colts teammates.
Over the last decade, they shared a Super Bowl title, went to four Pro Bowls together, combined for nearly 200 sacks and became one of the NFL’s most feared defensive tandems. Freeney taught Mathis the spin move and the art of a strip sack, and Mathis responded with results that were every bit as good – and sometimes better – than his mentor. They became best buddies.
Now, for the first time in their pro careers, Mathis and Freeney have been split up. And breaking up is hard to do.
Freeney is on the West Coast getting accustomed to a new team and a new way of doing business, while Mathis is back home in Indiana, coping with his first training camp without Freeney.
”It’s weird. It’s really, really weird,” Mathis said. ”It’s something you have to get used to because for a decade, we’ve been talking together at camp.”
Until now, Freeney had been the unquestioned spokesmen for Indy’s defense, the guy Mathis could always go to when he had a question or needed some advice. After all, Freeney was the Colts’ career leader in sacks, the first player in franchise history to win a sacks crown and a seven-time Pro Bowler who was an established fan favorite.
Mathis, a five-time Pro Bowler, always seemed to come in a close second.
Their friendship managed to survive despite that one-two image, despite the injuries, even despite the great Colts purge of 2011 that claimed so many of their close friends – Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett, Dallas Clark, Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday.
Last season, things began to change on the field.
When coach Chuck Pagano installed his version of the 3-4 defense that had been so successful in Baltimore, he decided to move both pass-rushing ends to rush linebackers.
While Mathis embraced his role and became increasingly more productive, Freeney never quite fit in. He looked uncomfortable in pass coverage and his spin move wasn’t nearly as effective. So at age 33 with his contract expiring and three consecutive seasons of declining numbers, Indy general manager Ryan Grigson made the decision to break up the tandem.
The Colts honored Freeney by posting the words ”thanks for the memories” across his poster outside Lucas Oil Stadium, just like they had with Manning and Clark.
It wasn’t easy on anyone.
”They built, as Robert said, a friendship, a brotherhood if you will,” Pagano said. ”There’s a certain comfort zone. One knew the other one was always going to be there. That relationship, this game, we always talk about this game will fade at some point for all of us, but the relationships will never fade. I know Robert and Dwight’s relationship will never fade and that’s something that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”
And, of course, they’ve kept the lines of communication open.
Two weeks after Freeney signed with the Chargers, the Syracuse alum and Connecticut native flew south and to be a groomsmen in Mathis’ wedding, and the conversations between Freeney and Mathis have continued right through training camp.
”Absolutely, I miss him. That’s my brother from another mother,” Freeney said after a recent Chargers practice. ”We are linked together for 10 years, one guy across from me. It is different. It is a little bit uncomfortable without him. I don’t like it. But I understand it and I know this is the game, and that’s life, and things change.”
The Colts have moved on, too.
Mathis, now in his 11th NFL season, will resume his pursuit of Freeney’s franchise record for sacks (107.5). He starts 2013 with 91.5 and will try to prove he can be just as productive without Freeney’s presence.
Freeney, meanwhile, will try to jump-start his career in San Diego, working for Pagano’s younger brother, John, again as an outside linebacker, trying to move up the NFL’s career sacks chart in what will be a season full of firsts.
Both will finally get a crack at sacking Manning, now with the Denver Broncos. Mathis gets the first crack, Oct. 20, when Manning returns to Lucas Oil Stadium in one of this season’s marquee matchups. Freeney will have two chances – Nov. 10 in San Diego and Dec. 12 at Denver.
Yet the most emotional game for these two will come Oct. 14 when they are reunited in San Diego on opposite sidelines.
”It’s really more like a big-brother, little-brother relationship,” said the 31-year-old Mathis. ”It’s just something you have to get used to.”
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.