Dwight Freeney gets one more crack at longtime nemesis Tom Brady. D9
houston — Of all the ways to pursue an NFL legacy, Dwight Freeney chose a most onerous assignment: chasing Tom Brady. He might as well have volunteered to find D.B. Cooper.
Freeney has exhausted many of his biggest moments in a twopronged pursuit of the indomitable quarterback. As a pass rusher, he lives to disrupt those privileged signal callers, but Brady is an expert at avoiding punishment. As a star on teams that have threatened the dynasty of the New England Patriots, Freeney has hunted Brady for championship hardware, too. But Brady is the most celebrated winner of his time.
And so, 15 seasons and 1221/ sacks into a borderline Hall 2 of Fame career, the 36-year-old Atlanta Falcons defensive end is left to make sense of his enviable success while grappling with what provokes his own jealousy: Brady and his four Super Bowls. If not for Brady, Freeney would have more than one ring and a bushel of what-ifs.
“I’ve been chasing him for a long time,” Freeney said. “He’s been beating me for a long time.”
Greatness is a vicious foil. As New England goes for a fifth championship in 16 years in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, it helps to understand what Brady and the Patriots have accomplished by considering what they took from others. This is especially illuminating when you think about Freeney, Peyton Manning and all those quality Indianapolis squads that swirled down the drain and into inferiority.
For 11 seasons with the Colts, Freeney chased Brady. The teams played 13 times, and Freeney only came away with four sacks and five wins. Three of those meetings occurred in the postseason, and the winner went on to win the Super Bowl each time. New England took two of three.
When you think about the Patriots’ dominance to start this century, it would be a mistake to gloss over the details and simply conclude that they ran over the league. They built a dynasty by mastering the subtleties of the game. They have had plenty of competition; their past six Super Bowl appearances were decided by four points or less. They win with precision. Their consistent ability to gain slight edges adds up to their brand of superiority.
The Colts could have been much closer to the Patriots, only they weren’t. At defining moments, New England was better. If the Colts had won two of those three playoff matchups, they probably would have two Super Bowls to the Patriots’ three. The conversation for Team of the Era would be less obvious. The “who’s better?” debate between Brady and Manning would be much more interesting. Instead, New England has won four titles to the Colts’ one. By the time Manning won a second Super Bowl with Denver, his throwing arm had turned into linguine. There’s really no use comparing the teams or the legendary quarterbacks.
“It was like they were in our division since we played them twice a year, once in the regular season and once in the postseason,” Freeney said. “We knew to expect it. We knocked them out. They knocked us out. So it is one of those things where you know it is going to be a battle. You know it is going to be a war. At the end, you have so much respect for them because of the fact that they are such a great franchise and they can continually make it to this moment year in and year out, even when they have changes on the team. They go through adversity. Still, they are here.”
Despite the disappointments, Freeney can’t resist praising Brady.
“The thing is, I try to hate the guy, but I can’t because he is a good guy,” Freeney said. “I have so much respect for him. He’s done a tremendous job in his career. He’s been the best at what he does.”
You might wonder how much more Freeney and his teams would have excelled without Brady. He doesn’t, really. The chase has been good for him, he says, because the chase is an antidote for complacency.
There’s no corralling Brady, even on the rare occasions when you knock him down. More than glory, competitors are addicted to sports because they provide purpose. As long as Brady is standing upright in the pocket, Freeney doesn’t have to manufacture motivation.
“It’s not easy,” Freeney said. “He doesn’t make it easy. He doesn’t want to get hit. The protection is going to be aligned so that he doesn’t. And when it isn’t, he’s going to get rid of the ball. That’s why he’s played as long as he has and has been successful so many years. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but we’re going to go out there and give as much as we possibly can.”
Freeney laughs because his career kind of began with a hit he delivered to Brady. It was 1998. He was a freshman at Syracuse. Brady was a junior at Michigan. On a September day at Michigan Stadium, during a 3828 Syracuse victory, Freeney recorded his first college statistic with a quarterback hit on a Brady dropback.
“It was a big thing to me,” Freeney said proudly. “I was this kid from Connecticut, and I always get joked on. ‘Hey, is there even football in Connecticut? What do you guys play with? Nine guys?’ Jokes like that.”
Freeney was a freshman at Bloomfield High when the football coach, Jack Cochran, convinced him to try football. He was a goalkeeper on the soccer team at the time.
“I got 30 kicks at me a game, 40 kicks at me a game,” Freeney said. “I would save 35, but the score would still be 5-0. We had no defense, absolutely none. And Coach Cochran said, ‘Why don’t you just give this other sport, this other football, a chance?’ I did, and he pushed me, and here I am today.”
He’s here, in his third Super Bowl, facing Brady for perhaps the last time. He’s a situational role player now, valuable mostly as a mentor to Vic Beasley Jr. Freeney has entertained the thought of the perfect ending, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in his last game and walking off with the last punch against his longtime nemesis. It would be a fairy-tale finale. “Or maybe I would want to press my luck and see if we could make the rivalry a little more even,” Freeney said, laughing.
Overall, Freeney is 5-9 against the Patriots, including a loss to them in 2014 when he played with the Chargers. Ten years ago, Freeney enjoyed his finest moment against New England: the Colts’ 38-34 victory in the AFC championship game. Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against,” Brady said of Freeney, who took the spin move to an artistic level. “He’s a machine.”
Instead of bragging rights, Freeney will have to settle for earning Brady’s respect. It’s most accurate to measure a champion by the might of his foe. The competition made Brady and his team better.
At least something good came from nearly two decades of chasing.
Defensive end Dwight Freeney’s teams have gone 5-9 vs. the Patriots, including 1-2 in the postseason.