Dwight Freeney gets one more crack at long­time neme­sis Tom Brady. D9

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Jerry Brewer

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.

TIM WARNER/GETTY IMAGES

De­fen­sive end Dwight Freeney’s teams have gone 5-9 vs. the Pa­tri­ots, in­clud­ing 1-2 in the post­sea­son.

Jerry Brewer

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