HOUSTON — All around him, Dwight Freeney sees fast mouths, fast legs, and 20-something Atlanta Falcons teammates trying to dissect Super Bowl 51. And Freeney fits right in, because though he turns 37 in fewer than three weeks, though he has toiled in 15 NFL seasons and soon in his third Super Bowl, his mind is ripe and his motor roars. You bet, Dwight Freeney can still hip-hop his way to quarterbacks.
He is the Atlanta Falcons’ sage. He is a defensive end with sustaining pass-rushing fire. Freeney is still choreographing his artistic, spinning, corkscrew moves on his way to pounding quarterbacks.
The Falcons — especially linebacker Vic Beasley, Jr, who’s 15.5 sacks led the league — seek his counsel. The Falcons coaches set him on the edge on passing downs and still ask him to sick ’em.
Freeney has the wisdom and the talent to do both. He can capture this Super Bowl chance in two words, explaining, "It’s priceless."
Maybe it is because he was drafted in 2002 by the Indianapolis Colts, the 11th overall pick, the kid from Hartford, Conn., and from Syracuse, who set a rookie record for forced fumbles with nine. Maybe it is because of his 122.5 career sacks (three this season) and 46 forced fumbles. Maybe because 11 Indianapolis seasons, two in San Diego, and one in Arizona before this Falcons one have taught him that championship chances are special. He won it with Indianapolis in 2006 against Chicago and lost with Indianapolis in 2010 against New Orleans.
One more chance to get it right. One more ring to claim. And, just maybe, one more game to play.
"My elder years are more mature years now," Freeney said. "I try to take everything in. I think one of my goals coming in was get 10 years in and you’ll retire after year 10 and you’ll be done and you’ll be happy. Every year after that I’ve said, OK, this is probably it for me. And I keep coming back.
"I don’t even think about that until the game is over. It usually happens a month or two after the season. I sit there, feel this leg, feel this arm, feel this knee, and see where I am mentally."
He just might win it and walk.
Exiting as an NFL champion is an intoxicating urge.
The flip side is if he can play 15 years, why not 16?
At 6-1, 268 pounds, Freeney is still strong with much to offer.
Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones said about Freeney’s teaching: "I just say it’s really been not leaving one stone unturned. He does a lot for his body, preparation for his performance. It’s crazy and I’m trying to work to get to that point."
Freeney said he clicked immediately with Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn.
Quinn calls him "Free." He said the plan was to use Freeney at right defensive end on passing downs only but Freeney lately "has been able to ramp up more reps." Quinn expects that might happen in this Super Bowl.
"First off with Free," said Quinn, "I think it’s the preparation that goes into his game. It’s been very valuable for other teammates to see. He has terrific work habits, both on and off the field. Dwight is a very smart guy. He has quarterback smarts playing defensive end."
His first NFL head coach, Tony Dungy, saw that. He helped Freeney grow it.
Dungy was amazed back on Nov. 3 when Atlanta won at Tampa Bay at how much of the skills Freeney still features from 15 years ago.
"I got the chance to talk to him on the field before the game and I could tell how much pride he was taking in helping the young Atlanta players," Dungy said. "I’ve watched him this year and he has a lot of the same quickness, speed, and pass-rush movements — it’s still there. I remember talking to him after his rookie year and telling him about Derrick Thomas in Kansas City when I coached him. How they both had such great rookie years but how important it was for him to understand that teams were not going to let him just go through and hit their quarterbacks the next year. People were going to study him and start to chip and double more and he had to be smart, develop more moves and counters. And he has taken that to another level.
"When we first went to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, I had the veteran players who had been there talk to the entire team. I imagine the Falcons will do that with him. The talk about not taking anything for granted and taking care of business. Sometimes, it can only come from a player like Dwight and really mean something. He’s done it so well for so long. It’s amazing to see."
Wherever he has been in the NFL, Freeney has left it better than he found it.
"Even on the offensive side of the ball, he inspired us," Cardinals receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "The guys in the locker room respected him and his career. He wasn’t a boisterous guy, but he led by his production and he was always where he was supposed to be. He takes a mental approach to it. His desire was intense. He is one of the special guys and special players in this league. He’s perfected his craft."
Drake said the Patriots will create a plan to account for Freeney roaring around the end. He said they must.
To game plan for a 15th-year defensive end is high praise. To beat those schemes and be a difference in making the Falcons champions might just might be the final football elixir for Freeney.
"Moments like this, I just take a second to really appreciate it, you know?" Freeney said. "Kind of just take it all in. Take a deep breath. Don’t just be in the moment and not realize what moment you’re in."