By: Will Burchfield
Dwight Freeney was like a fish who wanted to be caught. The Lions — and Jim Caldwell — finally reeled him in.
“They were one of those teams that kind of kept me on that little hook, like I was a worm on the end of the hook,” Freeney said. “They were like, ‘Dwight, stay ready, man. We’re going to call you any moment now, any second now.’
They made good on their word last week when they claimed Freeney off waivers from the Seahawks after talking with the seven-time Pro Bowler on-and-off throughout the first few months of the season.
“I was trying to get here earlier in the year, and I ended up here now,” Freeney said.
For Freeney, much of the appeal in the Lions lies in Caldwell, under whom he played the first 10 years of his career in Indianapolis. He also crossed paths in college with Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, once the defensive backs coach at Syracuse.
“It’s funny how things come full circle,” Freeney said. “I started off with Jim in my career in Indy, and now I have a lot of the same guys with me in the end. I don’t know if this is going to be the last year for me, but if it is, it’s just amazing to be here with extended family in Jim and those guys.”
It also helps that the Lions are in the playoff race entering the final month of the season. Freeney has missed the postseason just twice in his 16-year career, and he didn’t have interest in joining a team without playoff aspirations after the Seahawks placed him on waivers last week.
“Thank god it was this team (that claimed me), because I actually told my agent, ‘Look, I’m not gonna go to just anybody. I’ll retire before I do that.’ Detroit called me and I was like, alright, this is the place that I actually wanted to go to,” Freeney said.
Freeney, who ranks second all-time in sacks among active players, played a substantial role in the Falcons’ NFC Championship last season and nearly won his second Super Bowl. But Atlanta decided to go young at defensive end moving forward, replacing Freeney with first-round draft pick Tak McKinnley. Freeney went unsigned the first seven weeks of the season. The opportunity he was seeking wasn’t out there.
He had sporadic conversations with a few teams, all of whom told him to stay in shape and keep his phone on hand. He said he spoke with Caldwell two or three times before the Lions made things official last week.
“Guys going down or getting banged up on the D-line, he was like, “Alright, Dwight, this could be the week.’ And then all of a sudden it wasn’t the week, for whatever reason. I said, ‘Okay, well I’m here if you need me,’ and I was doing that for three or four other teams. I guess that’s the process when you’re in year 16 and you’re 37 years old and you got guys running around that’s 21,” Freeney said with a smile. “Those guys get first dibs, which is okay.”
Freeney ultimately signed with the Seahawks in late October. He made an immediate impact, tallying three sacks in four games, but Seattle released him to create a roster spot amid a rash of injuries to its linebackers corps. Freeney said he was “completely surprised, jaw on the ground” when he found out.
“It’d be one thing if I wasn’t producing and all that, but I was producing. That was the decision they had to make based on their situation,” he said.
“The GM (John Schneider) was really apologetic and said how embarrassed he was to do this. And I was like, ‘Okay, guys, whatever you say,'” Freeney said with a laugh.
Apparently, Schneider intended to momentarily place Freeney on waivers to free up a roster spot and then re-sign him the following week. That’s when the Lions swooped in. They’re hoping that Freeney can provide a shot in the arm to a pass rush that ranks 21st in the NFL in sacks and maybe even fortify a run defense that has been gashed over the last few weeks.
“He’s still got juice,” said Caldwell. “You take a look, he’s been productive anytime that he’s been on the field, and we’ll expect him to be productive for us as well. How will we use him? We’ll make a real good determination of that as we go through the week, but he’ll be able to do something for us.”
Freeney wasn’t able to play versus the Vikings on Thursday afternoon having played Monday night for Seattle, but he’s open to any role the Lions give him.
“The guys here have a great thing, we just have to turn the corner and probably stop the run a little bit more and get after the quarterback. But I don’t think that changes no matter what team you’re on, no matter your situation. You have to do those things, and I think TA is the guy who can make that happen,” said Freeney.
In regard to his playing time, Freeney said, “It’s pretty much up to the coaching staff.”
“I’ve had the years when I played 50, 60 snaps (per game) and it’s a wear and tear on the body. I trained for that if they need me, but if they don’t need it then, hey, I’m alright,” he same with a smile. “If you want to have me 35, 40 plays, I’m okay with that. I still love the game, I love playing on Sunday and however they need me I’m there.”
Freeney will make his Lions debut Sunday in Baltimore. The team is need of a late-season push, on the outside of the playoff race looking in, and perhaps Freeney is the man to deliver it. He’s seen just about all there is to see in the NFL and can impart those experiences on the players around him.
“That’s part of what comes with being a vet. …The thing is, that experience you can’t really make up for. The most you can do is just help those (young) guys and say, ‘Hey, this is what you need to expect and the game is going to speed up, or this is the time to put the push.’ I’m sure that’s probably one of the reasons they brought me here,” Freeney said.
It’s funny. Freeney never intended to play this long. When he first broke into the NFL in 2002 he told himself he’d play for 10 years. And that threshold was non-negotiable.
“I was like, there’s no way I’m ever playing 11 or 12 years. That’s insane, that’s crazy. And here I am, year 16, having fun, trying to run around the field with guys born in ’95 when I was going into high school. These guys are like, ‘Oh yeah, I used to play with you in Madden.’ I’m the old guy now, I guess,” Freeney said.
He’s the new guy, too, as strange as that sounds. That will pose some challenges this week as Freeney starts to learn the Lions’ playbook and adapt to their defensive scheme. Of course, this is his fifth team over the past four years. He’s used to new beginnings.
This may be the final one of his Hall-of-Fame career. In reuniting with Caldwell, it seems Freeney has found the bookend he’s been missing. The two have been in frequent contact over the past few summers, their love for golf always providing the pretense for a more important conversation.
“I’ll text Jim, ‘What’s going on? How’s the golf game?'” Freeney said. “We usually start there and then kind of go into, ‘Alright, so you need me this year or what?’ He’s always said to me, ‘Hey, just stay ready. I might call on you.”
Finally, he did.
“Things have to match up,” said Caldwell. “The need and opportunity matched up for us, so it worked out.”
At 37 years old and still producing in the NFL, Freeney is a rare bird, “an usual cat,” as Caldwell likes to say. But he’s certainly no fish out of water.
“I’m still having fun,” he said. “I think I have a lot left, and that’s the reason I’m still playing.”