Freeney’s value to Falcons measured by far more than sacks

Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney hits Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer to force an incomplete pass during the fourth quarter of a game on Nov. 27. It was the Falcons’ first game after the bye, which allowed Freeney a chance to rest a torn quad. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney hits Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer to force an incomplete pass during the fourth quarter of a game on Nov. 27. It was the Falcons’ first game after the bye, which allowed Freeney a chance to rest a torn quad. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

One need not be a football or medical expert to understand that Dwight Freeney’s legs don’t work like they used to. He’s 36 years old. Some quarterback pursuits from seasons past that used to result in sacks now result in almost-sacks.

“A few times I’ve been this close,” he said, holding thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart.

That quarter-inch of missing speed is why some pro athletes find themselves without a job.

But this isn’t about Freeney proving to be too old to help the Falcons. To the contrary, he has been one of the most valuable members on this year’s team, on and off the field.

From the Falcons’ sometimes maniacal defensive line coach, Bryan Cox, who has a unique way of getting to the point: “I don’t give a damn about his numbers. His presence is being felt. I don’t know how much money he’s making but it’s not nearly enough.”

About the numbers. Freeney has three sacks. He had sacks in consecutive weeks in Games 3, 4 and 5 but none since. With those three sacks, Freeney has 17 quarterback “hurries,” which ranks second on the team to Vic Beasley’s 25.

Beasley also has a league-leading 14½ sacks. His legs are only 24.

Maybe Freeney would’ve turned some of those pressures into sacks five years ago, but that’s not the way a pro athlete thinks. “You don’t want to start feeding yourself negative thoughts like that,” he said. “Then it becomes, ‘The old me would’ve made it. I might as well just quit.’ I can’t second-guess myself like that.

“Numbers can lie. I think I’m affecting games but sometimes it’s not always going to show up in the stats. Sometimes a guy runs out of bounds and you’re the closest to him so you get a sack. Sometimes a guy holds you right before you get the sack and he gets a penalty.”

There's also this: Freeney suffered a Grade 2 (out of three) quad tear in the fourth quarter of the San Diego game. "Running around the corner, I felt it. <em>Pop, pop.</em>"

He tried to play through it against Green Bay (win), sat out the Tampa Bay game (win), then struggled at Philadelphia (loss), before the bye. He has played all four games since, including season-high snap counts against Arizona (38) and Los Angeles (39).

But Freeney’s biggest impact might be off the field. His mentoring of Beasley has gotten a lot of attention but his work with other linemen about preparation and film study and how to dissect opponents’ protections have sometimes exceeded what Cox and coach Dan Quinn could convey to players themselves.

When Freeney signed, Quinn made a point of saying he was being brought here to play, not coach or mentor. He says now that he did that because he didn’t want to make any false assumptions about what Freeney would do.

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney (93) works against San Francisco 49ers guard Zane Beadles (68) Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Atlanta.
Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney (93) works against San Francisco 49ers guard Zane Beadles (68) Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Atlanta.

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

“Some veterans don’t want to do that. Some aren’t good at it. I wanted to make it clear to Dwight, too, that he was here to play. If the byproduct of that was that some of the players had that interest to do some of the things he does, that would be great, too,” Quinn said.

“He has an understanding of the game unlike any player I’ve ever been around. Not that I’ve ever talked to him about it but he’d make for a good coach if he ever wanted to do that. He has that knowledge in there.”

When told Quinn said he would make a good coach, Freeney smiled that veterans’ “I think I just want to rest in retirement” smile.

“Maybe when I’m 45 or 50, if I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve got nothing else to do.’”

Beasley has remarked on Freeney’s influence. So did Adrian Clayborn the other day. He had three sacks all of last season but this year had 4½ in the first 11 games before missing the last three with a knee injury.

Clayborn credited Freeney with helping him with film study. “Just watching him off the field, all the extra work he does, it kind of motivated me to do more,” he said.

Cox again: “His sacks numbers are not what we hoped they would be or he hoped what they would be, but his influence in this building has been huge for where we are. I have a guy here who people respect and listen to who can convey my words, but it’s different coming from him. Dwight can go to a guy and put his arm around him and say, ‘Try it like this.’ And they do it.”

The Falcons can clinch a playoff berth and possibly the NFC South Division this weekend. Freeney has gone to the playoffs most of his career, been to two Super Bowls and won one.

“This is what I play for,” he said. “This is one of the reasons you come back, just to feel this energy. Because once it’s done, it’s done. You won’t ever have anything to replace the type of adrenalin rush and that camaraderie to try to go after one goal. Hopefully we take care of business the next two weeks and I can feel that feeling again.”

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