The Indianapolis Colts have long been thought of as an offensive powered football team. No doubt that their decade of dominance in the NFL over the 2000s was due largely to the fact that their offense was run by Peyton Manning. The offense included the likes of Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and Jeff Saturday. But the defense included stars as well, and none more so than Dwight Freeney. Freeney was part of a team that won 122 games in 11 years (2002-2012), in addition to 9 postseason wins. The team won 2 AFC titles and a Super Bowl during Freeney's tenure and made the playoffs in 10 of his 11 years in Indianapolis. Not only did the team build a resume that will be remembered for a long time, but Freeney did as well. Long regarded as one of (if not the) best pass rushers in the league, Freeney notched 107.5 sacks and forced 43 fumbles. He made the pro bowl in 7 of his 11 seasons and was named a 1st-team All-Pro 3 times (2004, 2005, 2009). He was named to the NFL's All Decade team of the 2000s. And, just like so many other times in the past year, it was announced that an instrumental piece in that incredible run will not return.
Last year the team underwent a massive rebuilding, but with Freeney still under contract for one more year the Colts decided to keep him (despite the fact that many, including myself, thought he would struggle adjusting to Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense). Freeney did struggle, and though hampered by an injury he was nowhere near the Dwight Freeney of old. The decision not to re-sign him was really no surprise, but now that it is over the realization that another one of the all-time greats will be leaving Indianapolis. Owner Jim Irsay has already announced that Freeney will be inducted into the Colts' ring of honor, and there is a possibility for a Hall of Fame induction as well (I think he deserves it). Freeney will finish his career in a uniform other than the blue and white, but he will forever be associated with the horseshoe. He still has some sacks left to contribute and a team needing a 4-3 defensive end pass rusher would be wise to sign Freeney. But the bottom line is that his career with the Colts has come to an end. The memories never will.
Where else to start but the 2002 NFL draft? The Colts were coming off of a dismal 6-10 season and had just hired defensive guru Tony Dungy to fix the defense, which was way behind the offense. The Colts picked 11th that year, and they took an undersized defensive end out of Syracuse. Freeney fit the mold of the typical Colt defender under Dungy - undersized but one who played with heart. While some may have doubted Freeney's size, none could doubt his impact after his first season in Indy. He racked up 13 sacks and forced 9 fumbles. By the time 2004 rolled around, Freeney was already at the pinnacle of his career and was the best pass rusher in the NFL, leading the league in sacks with 16. In each of his first four seasons (2002-2005), he notched double-digit sack totals. He later had another stretch of three years in a row with double-digit sacks (2008-2010).
Remember in 2007 when the Colts traveled to Cleveland and didn't score an offensive touchdown? No problem, as Freeney forced a fumble on the quarterback in the 4th quarter which Robert Mathis picked up and took 37 yards for a score to win the game 10-6. Freeney himself scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery in 2003, his only touchdown of his career.
Or what about in 2011, when Freeney and Mathis almost single handedly lead the Colts to a win over the Steelers in the first appearance of the season for Curtis Painter. While they didn't win the game, it was still one of the most extraordinary games for the two pass rushers that I have ever seen.
Not only was Freeney's impact noticeable on the field, but perhaps it was much more noticeable when he wasn't. In 2007, Freeney suffered an injury which sidelined him for the second half of the season, and a Colts team that had the look of a super bowl team struggled without Freeney and lost their first playoff game. Then again in 2009, number 93 was injured in the Colts' AFC Championship victory over the New York Jets. He did indeed play in the super bowl, but perhaps one of the reasons for the loss that no one talks about is Freeney's ankle. He was getting pressure and disrupting the Saints offense in the first half, but after a long halftime his ankle tightened up and he was essentially a non-factor in the second half.
My favorite individual play from Freeney came in that super bowl, however. In the first half, Freeney got pressure on Drew Brees and grabbed him with one hand - and he pulled him down. One handed. Freeney just grabbed Brees' jersey and pulled him down. It was an unbelievable show of strength and determination and just goes to show how hard to stop Dwight Freeney truly was. (For a video of the play head here, but be warned that it is in a different language - it's the only video of the sack I could find. You can still see the play just fine, though.)
The image everyone who watched Freeney will remember though, is the spin move. Yeah, he used it on a majority of those sacks (although his bull rush was underrated). But his spin move was what gained popularity and what made him so hard to stop. Other players have tried to replicate the spin move but no one can duplicate it. Check out this great Sports Science breakdown of his spin move, as well as NFL Network discussing it. And lastly, the quality is bad but the effect is the same: here's a sample of his spin move in action. If there is one thing Dwight Freeney will be remembered for, it is his signature spin move. It was fun to watch and nearly impossible to defend.
Freeney's time with the Colts is done after 11 seasons, and it was the absolute right decision by the organization. But that doesn't make it any easier. There are few players who have made as big of an impact for the Colts, and for that Dwight Freeney will be inducted into the ring of honor. But it shouldn't stop there. It should stop in Canton, Ohio, with Dwight Freeney going into the Hall of Fame. As a Colt, and rightfully so.
What are your favorite Dwight Freeney memories? Drop them in the comments below.