Dwight Freeney deserves as much respect for how he handled his worst season as he did for all his quarterback-harassing great ones.
The reason: He was a no-nonsense team player.
Last season couldn't have been easy. Freeney knew his days with the Indianapolis Colts were numbered. He knew his skills fit into the new defensive scheme like a square defensive end into an outside linebacker hole. He knew the Colts said farewell to Peyton Manning and most of the gang when cost overtook sentimentality.
Toward the end of the season, Freeney even acknowledged he wasn't likely to be re-signed by the Colts, joking about having low stats (12 tackles, five sacks), getting older and hauling in a big paycheck.
He was right. The Colts announced Friday they will part ways with Freeney, albeit with owner Jim Irsay talking about Freeney's eventual return for the Ring of Honor. The Colts will not re-sign Freeney and he'll be a free agent March 12.
If you want to be cynical, you could say Freeney's team-oriented outlook and positive attitude in 2012 came via about $14 million in pay. But when has money stopped a disgruntled professional athlete from pouting? Answer: Never.
Freeney chose his attitude this past season. He chose professionalism, the higher road and his role as savvy veteran to a bunch of young Colts. Even as his numbers weren't piling up, slowed in part by a high ankle sprain in the season-opener at Chicago, he talked weekly with the media. He didn't hide. He didn't sulk.
In making that choice, Freeney cemented his legacy as one of the class acts, as well as great players, in Colts history.
Freeney was the Manning of the Colts defense for most of his career, the big-play man, the guy who teams were forced to game-plan to slow. He spent most of his career being double-teamed, and he still recorded a franchise-record 107.5 sacks and forced 44 fumbles.
At his peak, he was the most feared sack artist in the league.
There was a point, from 2003 to 2010, primarily, where he couldn't' remember ever facing only a single blocker. That's respect, combined with fear, from an offense.
Because of Freeney's past success, this season had to be tougher than anything since his rookie year. Colts coach Chuck Pagano brought in defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and switched the defensive scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Freeney and fellow pass rusher Robert Mathis were forced to adapt to a new spot and a new stance on the field at outside linebacker. Mathis made the switch quicker. It wasn't the right time in Freeney's career to become a drop-into-coverage guy.
Around midseason, it struck me in talking with Freeney in the locker room that he seemed like that high school graduate who comes back and hangs out at the old school, but all the kids are younger and have new friends and new interests.
Most of Freeney's peers – Manning, Gary Brackett, Dallas Clark, Jeff Saturday – weren't around anymore. He said, late in the season, it had been quite odd to get used to the new faces and dynamic in the locker room.
As was the case with some of the player moves made last season, the Colts had to weigh Freeney's age (he turns 33 next week) with his salary and made the hard decision to part ways. Freeney would have liked to retire as a Colt, but the bottom-line business side got in the way.
It'll be interesting to see where Freeney lands. He could be attractive as a defensive end for a team in a 4-3 defense if that team feels he has enough left in his tank and his salary fits the bill. On the other hand, maybe this is the end of the line. Brackett had similar miles on his body and didn't get another shot after he left the Colts.
No matter what happens now, Freeney's legacy is secure. He'll join his former teammates Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James in the Ring of Honor when he's finally done playing. Others from that great stretch run – Freeney was part of more than 100 wins – will be there eventually, too.
We're heading into Year Two of the new Colts era. Only four players remain from the 2006 Super Bowl champions: Mathis, Wayne, Antoine Bethea and Adam Vinatieri.
Freeney was as important as anyone to that tremendous stretch of Colts football. He also had the chance to assist in “building the monster” of the next wave. He handled it all with class.