So let’s address the elephant in the locker room: He’s an old elephant. He’s 36 in real time. After more than 8,000 snaps in 194 games over 14 seasons (plus playoffs), he’s really more like 66 in NFL dog years.
But there was Dwight Freeney, on hot and humid Atlanta summer day, reporting to training camp instead of a lawn chair, assuring the assembled masses that he still has something left in the tank and he wasn’t yet ready for a lifetime of Denny’s Grand Slam specials and yelling at punk quarterbacks to get off his lawn.
How many snaps can he give the Falcons on any given Sunday?
“It’s up them,” he said. “If it’s 18 snaps, it’s 18 snaps. If it’s 30 snaps, its 30 snaps. It’s 45 or 50 snaps, they’re going to have to give me an IV.”
Thank you, he’s here all season.
Freeney didn’t quite have the wealth of material that 47-year-old Morten Andersen had after returning from the crypt a few years back. — Flashbacks: “Did you hear they cut Morten open and saw dust came out? Hah! … Did you hear Morten went to the antique story and they wanted to keep him? … Did you hear that Morten watched Jurassic Park and he started crying? — But Freeney understands why some might be looking at the Falcons sideways for this decision to sign him. He’s here to tell you that all is well.
“I still have a lot left to give,” he said.
Know what? I believe him. Maybe because I’m a sucker for an old guy story. Or maybe just because Freeney proved last season, after an abbreviated retirement and with gray stubble and all, he could still be a pain for offensive tackles trying to stop his spin move or quarterbacks trying to find a safe space.
“I watched all of his plays from 2015,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “It didn’t take long to see he could still affect games.”
Which is good. Because the Falcons’ pass rushers have shown that getting smacked to the ground and crawling into a fetal position just isn’t working.
Freeney retired after the 2014 season, intending that his next spin move would be into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Arizona coach Bruce Arians coaxed him out of retirement a month into the season. Freeney responded with eight sacks and three forced fumbles in 11 games. He played mostly as a nickel pass rusher, averaging 23 snaps a game. Expect something more on the 15 to 20 range with the Falcons.
“We’ll be particular about the snaps,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “People say he’s at the twilight of his career, but that’s not a concern for us. What we see is a guy who still has his patented moves and can still get around the corner.”
Yes, this is partly about the Falcons’ need for leadership and to have one of the NFL’s all-time greatest pass rushers (119.5 sacks, 46 forced fumbles, 16 pass breakups) to pass on some of his knowledge to younger players. But mostly, this is about playing. The Falcons need Freeney to chase and hit opposing quarterbacks.
If this was all about stature, as even owner Arthur Blank said, “We can just put a statue out here.”
Statues, they’ve had.
The Falcons won’t measure Freeney’s success by just his sack numbers, because to expect double-digits would be overly optimistic. But if he can create enough havoc and draw blockers away from some combination of Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Derrick Shelby and others, the Falcons’ pass rush as a whole will improve. After ranking 30th, 31st and 32nd in sacks the last three seasons, they can only get better.
Quinn phoned Freeney two months ago and sold him on his defense and the organization’s plan. It helped that Quinn used to be a defensive line coach and spoke the same language. Freeney came to Atlanta in part because of Quinn, just as he went to Arizona in part because of Arians.
“He has the right attitude, a stand-up guy,” Freeney said. “I had so much fun last year. They understood me and used me the right way. I wasn’t covering (Rob) Gronkowski 30 yards down the field and I was doing some of the things I love to do. That was a big indication for me to know I could still play and more importantly still have fun doing it.”
Freeney will wear No. 93, his old Indianapolis number, after a “negotiation” with Malliciah Goodman. The Falcons are hoping for a renaissance season. Half the player Freeney was with the Colts is still better than anything the Falcons’ had rushing the passer last year.