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On Sunday, Dwight Freeney will be participating in his fourth conference championship game, with this one being the most unlikely of them all.
Freeney had been a crucial part of the Colts' success in the 2000s, a run that included three AFC Championship game appearances and two Super Bowl appearances. The most recent one, however, had come in the 2009 season, and just three years later, Freeney wasn't re-signed by the Colts - in part due to money, in part due to production, and in part due to scheme fit. Freeney was on the street, but he soon signed with the San Diego Chargers. Injuries marred Freeney's time in San Diego, but he managed just four sacks in two years with the Chargers (though, to be fair, he was far more disruptive than the sack numbers indicate). Once again, Freeney was on the street.
This time, however, it lasted longer. Freeney went unsigned throughout the offseason and training camp, and the pass rusher was left simply playing golf. In September he reached out to Bruce Arians, who he had played for in Indianapolis in 2012 while Arians was interim head coach, but the Cardinals' head coach couldn't make the commitment to signing Freeney at that point. He told the pass rusher to stay in shape and be ready just in case, but as the days turned into months, Freeney continued to be left playing golf instead of football. He was a week away from filing his retirement papers and calling it a career when, while getting ready to leave on a flight, his phone rang. It was Bruce Arians.
The rest, as you might say, is history. Freeney signed a minimal one-year deal with the Cardinals in October and soon became an immediate contributor. He played the same week he was signed, and the following week he recorded his first sack. Soon, Freeney was Arizona's best pass rusher, as he showed once again an ability to get after the quarterback - which was most evident in the team's week 16 game against the Packers in which Freeney sacked Aaron Rodgers three times en route to being named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Though he wasn't signed until mid-October, Freeney still finished with eight sacks, enough to lead the Cardinals. He added another one in the team's divisional round playoff win over Rodgers and the Packers, marking his tenth career postseason sack (tied for the eighth-most in league history).
Freeney knows what it takes to be a part of a successful team, as he was a huge contributor to the Colts during their record-setting run and now is a huge contributor to the Cardinals as they seek a Super Bowl title. And if you ask Freeney, the two situations are similar.
"The amount of talent this team has, and I'm so familiar with so much of the coaching staff and the people here," Freeney said this week, according to Newsday. "It's like an extended family from Indianapolis. It's definitely been an experience for me. Personally, it's a little bit different role, but it's a lot of similar types of feelings. A high-powered offense scoring a lot of points. We have some great weapons here. Probably some more talent than my Indy days. It's a really similar feel in terms of the city and how we win and finding ways to win."
Just like in Indianapolis, Freeney is once again leading his team in sacks and providing a dangerous pass rush threat for a playoff team with a great offense. And Freeney is hoping that, just like in Indianapolis, greater things are in store for Arizona than simply appearing in a conference title game.