I'm a big proponent of new. When things are new, people get excited. When people get excited, especially when they are working, they become more productive and enjoy doing what they do. I've learned this through experience. Rarely do people enjoy their work, or do that work well, when they are told, "Do it, or you're fired!"
In the case of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, the firing of Bill Polian really was a blessing for them. I don't know how they personally felt about the move, but Polian's insistence on doing things his way was limiting them. Polian had gotten way too attached to the Tampa-2 scheme, and his efforts to roadblock former defensive coordinator Larry Coyer (who attempted to deploy a similar scheme to the one new head coach Chuck Pagano is currently installing) contributed to last year's 2-14 horror show.
[Note: No, I'm not bringing up Bill Polian again simply because I miss bashing him. I honestly do my best to avoid talking or writing about the guy.]
With the Tampa-2 junked, some creativity can finally get injected into the Colts defensive scheme, and that is exactly what Pagano and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky are trying to do. Freeney and Mathis are the chess pieces (so to speak) Pagano and Manusky plan to move around the board, looking to maximize the rush and playmaking abilities of both men.
So far, Freeney and Mathis are loving it. Here's some quotes, via Pete DiPrimio at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:
"We have something fresh, something new," Freeney said. "The possibilities are endless. This defense is a proven defense. Look at San Francisco, the Steelers, the Ravens. They're always in the top 5 in defense every year. The proof is in the pudding. It's matter of us getting it down."
To say this new defense was needed in order to inject new life in the careers of Freeney and Mathis cannot be overstated. Both are great players, but their reputations took a hit last year when the Colts started 0-12. The meme on Indy for years was that, without Peyton Manning, it was a six-win team. This perception made players like Freeney and Mathis bristle.
When Manning did eventually go down, the team didn't even win six. Two games. Just two, and they were lucky to get even that they were so bad.
Freeney notched only 8.5 sacks last season, along with just 19 tackles. His career-long knock that he is "soft" against the run didn't go away either. If anything, it was reinforced. The Colts ranked 29th against the run last year, and from what I gather teams made it a point to run right at Freeney.
Meanwhile, Robert Mathis notched 9.5 sacks and 43 tackles.
Both men are excellent pass rushers. There is no question about that. However, both are past the prime of their careers, and to expect them to simply rush from the same side, in the same way, in the modern NFL is wasting their talents. Move these guys around. Make them rush from different angles. Make the opposing team's quarterback wonder where Freeney and Mathis are.
Added Freeney: "We'll switch it up. We've been doing a lot of that. Sometimes it will be like it used to be. Sometimes we'll come with blitzes. Different blitzes. Three or four of them."
Freeney said the coaches didn't have to talk him into accepting this new role.
"Not at all. This defense produces some great statistics.
"Look at what I do. It won't be that different than what I do."
In other words, he's going after the quarterback. So is Mathis.
"It's all about learning a new scheme and getting it down," Mathis said. "When you understand what you're doing, you can play a lot faster."
This is a big year for Freeney. He is an unrestricted free agent next season, and the Colts are not expected to re-sign him. There is even still chatter that the team could trade him and his $11 million dollar cap hit this season. Should Freeney have a big year playing a new position (like Mario Williams was having last year before he got hurt) it could mean a new contract for Freeney next offseason.
For Mathis, this change in the defensive scheme is something he's longed for. Follow his Twitter feed and you'll see that he's wanted a Baltimore-style defense in Indy for a while now.
We've seen other former Colts defensive ends thrive after they've been switched to a new position. Raheem Brock, who the Colts used as a defensive tackle and a defensive end, asked for his release in 2010. After that release was granted, he signed with Seattle and notched 9.0 sacks (a career high) and 32 tackles as a hybrid DE and LBer. Nine sacks was nearly triple his sack numbers from the season before (3.5).
If Freeney and Mathis have a similar jump in production... oh my.