We got the news last Friday that the Colts were going to let their all-time franchise leader in sacks, Dwight Freeney, test the 2013 free agency market. Freeney got a write-up on Colts.com, some public praise from owner Jim Irsay (he called Freeney a future Hall of Famer), and a "seeya later" from the organization.
Freeney is gone, folks. The next time we see him with this franchise could be the day when they sign him just so he can retire a Colt.
Letting Freeney walk is different than how the franchise released Peyton Manning last year. For starters, Manning was still under contract, having just signed a multimillion dollar deal in 2011 only to get cut immediately following that season. With Peyton, there were real, legitimate concerns that he would never play again, or, if he did, his surgically-fused spine would get broken on the field of play.
Freeney, unlike Manning, does not have similar medical concerns.
That said, it's obvious Freeney is not the player he once was. 2012 was his worst year, statically, for a full season of work. He also missed two games with an ankle injury sustained Week One against the Bears. However, the ankle was not the primary reason why Freeney had only 5 sacks 12 combined tackles from the OLB position in 2012. Freeney simply did not look comfortable in Chuck Pagano's new "hybrid" 3-4 defense. In fact, to call the defense a "hybrid" is a bit misleading. If you watched Colts games last season, pretty much every time Freeney was on the field, the Colts aligned in a 4-3 front.
The reason: Freeney cannot drop into coverage as an OLB in a 3-4. When he did, it wasn't pretty.
Dwight also wasn't particularly stout at holding his edge and containing the run. When on the field, he was still an effective rusher, but a liability on early downs. It is for this reason more than any other that Freeney will cease to be a Colt when the 2013 league year begins March 12th.
This is interesting because, as we've seen with the Colts offense, the most effective systems tend to mold themselves around their personnel. That's not the case with the Colts defense. Chuck Pagano was hired specifically for his defensive pedigree, and while I personally still have faith in his coaching ability, the reality is the 2012 Colts defense was as bad as the 2011 one. That 2011 defense cost coordinator Larry Coyer his job mid-season, and eventually head coach Jim Caldwell was shown the door the following year. If the 2013 defense is just as bad, at some point you'll begin to hear whispers about Pagano's job security.
Cancer or no cancer, the coach is paid to win, and a defensive coach does not stand on firm ground if his defense isn't especially good.
Letting Freeney go means the Colts will enter 2013 without a true, legitimate pass rusher. No disrespect to Robert Mathis, but he isn't Freeney. Not even close. Freeney's 107.5 sacks over ten seasons has him at 21 on the all-time list, tied with Pat Swilling. Mathis has 91.5 career sacks, but an argument can be made that Mathis feasted off Freeney's greatness.
Teams doubled Freeney. Sometimes, they tripled him. Not so much Mathis.
107.5 sacks isn't something a team simply replaces. This is why I think the Colts will focus their early round targets on a pass rusher in the 2013 NFL Draft. I respect the talents of veteran free agents like Paul Kruger or Anthony Spencer, and either one of them will certainly help the Colts D in '13. However, they aren't in Freeney's league. They just aren't.
When all is said and done, Freeney is one of the greatest players ever to put on the horseshoe helmet. In terms of overall affect on the franchise, he's up there with Manning, Unitas, Berry, Harrison, Moore, and the other greats. He's the kind of guy whose number you retire, which will eventually happen. Marvin Harrison's number has, effectively, been retired. No one has worn it since he left in 2009. No one will ever where 18 again in Indianapolis. The same should be said for No. 93.
Obviously, we wish Dwight nothing but the best... unless he plays the Colts. My instincts say he'll sign with the Giants, who run a 4-3 scheme and are looking to replace Osi Umenyiora. Dwight's family is from Connecticut, and his mindset is very East Coast-centered. Regardless of where he goes, his new team will be getting a helluva pass rusher. He's not what he was, but that's still better than most out there.
With Freeney gone, we have truly moved into a new era. There are only six players left on the roster from the team that won Super Bowl XLI in 2007. He was also the last player left from the team that lost 41-0 in the playoffs to the Jets in 2002, his rookie year in the league. I still remember that season as if it were yesterday. I remember Freeney's first game starting, Week 9 against the Eagles. He had a sack and was a huge difference maker in the game. Prior to Freeney, the Colts simply had no defensive stars. Players like Duane Bickett, Tony Bennett, and Chad Bratzke were solid guys, but none scared the waking life of opposing QBs like Freeney did.
This was a special player, folks. We may not see his like again in Indianapolis.
Best of luck, Dwight. [/salute]