RENTON Once Cliff Avril lost feeling in his hands and arms from getting kicked under the chin on the first night of October, John Schneider picked up the phone.
The Seahawks’ general manager called to find out if Dwight Freeney wanted to chase and sack quarterbacks again.
That call came just in time, too.
“I was literally one week away (from walking away from football for good),” the 37-year-old, seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end said Wednesday, his first day as Seattle’s new defensive end for the rest of this season.
Never miss a local story.
Freeney is a former Super Bowl champion with Indianapolis who is the same age as his new defensive coordinator. He said he had no interest in signing with a team this summer after Atlanta let his contract expire after he played in Super Bowl 51 in February. No way. He’s not at the point in his career where he needs--or wants--any part of anyone’s training-camp grind.
But the regular season? That still appeals to him. Always has. This NFL one was his first one not playing football at some level since 1994, when he was a freshman soccer goalkeeper at Bloomfield High School in Connecticut. As it went on, Freeney realized he wanted to play again. He waited for a call.
While he did, a man with a Super Bowl ring, 15 years of stardom and $97 million in career earnings was in Newport Beach, California, and Indianapolis, worked out in public gyms. “
Multiple gyms; when you don’t have a team you just can’t go to the team that you last played with, wherever I could find,” he said.
He was running up random hills and down empty streets he could find to stay in shape.
Just in case.
“I was like, ‘If I don’t get a call now, I can’t go into that same gym and work out doing the same workout. Again,’” Freeney said of four weeks ago.
Then Avril got hurt Oct. 1, against Freeney’s former Colts. Avril eventually went on injured reserve last week. Freeney took his spot on Seattle’s roster Wednesday when he signed his one-year contract prorated for the final 10 games of this season. That includes Sunday’s at home against Houston.
Coach Pete Carroll said before his first Seattle practice Wednesday the Seahawks are expecting Freeney to play in that. Freeney will likely play right defensive end, because that’s what side he’s been on his entire career.
Michael Bennett, Seattle’s other Pro Bowl end opposite Avril, is playing through a plantar-fascia injury in his right foot. He is barely practicing but is expected to play again Sunday against Houston. He played 88 percent of the defensive snaps last weekend at the New York Giants on his bad foot. When Seattle’s defensive line was at its best, in its 2013 Super Bowl-winning season, Bennett and Avril played around 60 percent of plays because the pass rush was deep in quality and production.
Freeney can help with get Bennett’s numbers closer to that than to 90 percent. The Seahawks think he can also help with this: Seattle has just 12 sacks through six games, tied for 27th in the 32-team NFL. The Seahawks’ rate of sacks on 5.6 percent of passing plays they’ve defended this season is 24th in the league.
Freeney had eight sacks in 11 games in 2015 with Arizona, in a defense that when he first signed was foreign to him. He had three sacks in 15 games last season, when the Falcons paced his play as a situational, aged rush man. He only played 28 plays per game, 39 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps, during the regular season.
How much will Freeney play for Seattle, starting with Sunday’s game against the Texans and over the other nine games left in the regular season and what the Seahawks expect will be a sixth consecutive postseason? Fifteen to 20 snaps seems a reasonable guess, at least at the beginning.
“We are going to mix him in, see how he does,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s ready to go. He wants to go. He’s been working out hard. He’s in good shape; the workout showed that (Tuesday). He’s got to make it through the week and all that, but we are expecting him to play, so you’ll see him some.”
Freeney is one of three on the Seahawks’ defense who have been named All-Pro three times. The others are safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman.
Sherman thinks even a handful of plays will benefit the Seahawks’ pass rush and thus the entire defense that already, in Sherman’s words, is “playing at as high a level as we ever have.”
“Dwight is such a special player, that he only needs a few snaps to make an impact on the game,” Sherman said. “And we’re glad that we got him.”
Freeney was a perennial double-digit sack machine for the Colts: 13, 11, 16, 11, 10.5, 13.5 and 10 were his sack totals in seven of his first nine NFL seasons. Thing is, those were in the early 2000s. He has 122.5 sacks in his 15-year career. That is second among active players behind Julius Peppers. Peppers entered the league the same year Freeney did.
Freeney last played in January and February. He chased Russell Wilson in the NFC divisional playoff game his Falcons won over the Seahawks in Atlanta. Freeney had three sacks in 15 regular-season games last year for the Falcons, then another sack in Super Bowl 51 in February, of Tom Brady in New England’s win over Atlanta. The Falcons let his contract expire after that game.
“Thank God these guys called me and said they had interest. That kind of pushed me another week to work out, to get going,” Freeney said of the Seahawks. “And I’m here now. Excited.
“I had some other offers, and I turned some of those down. One of those was always Atlanta; Atlanta was the last team (I played for, last season).
“I think it lined up perfectly.”
Freeney has played for the Colts (2002-12), Chargers (2013-14), Cardinals (2015) and Falcons (’16). Yet he said of Seattle: “I’ve always wanted to play here.”
“Once I left Indianapolis (before the ‘13 season) I was like, ‘Man, it would be special to play in Seattle,’” Freeney said. “And one of the reasons being because of the mentality on defense. It kind of gets lost sometimes in the league, now, these days of high-powered offenses...I think it’s a little something different on defense in this city and how the ‘12th Man’ really rises up and gets behind their D.
“And I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
The active (again) leader in NFL playoff games by a defensive player with 22 knows where he’s been. And he knows how he got here.
“Cliff went down, and it opened up a spot for me.” Freeney said. “You never want to see a guy go down; we are all kind of brothers in this league. And I’ve actually known Cliff for a while. So that kind of bothered me, to see him and that I always wanted to play with him.
“That being said, I’m happy to be here. And I’m just trying to go out and do what I do, and try to help this team anyway that I can.”