Dwight Freeney is at home enjoying his last day in Indianapolis before he boards a charter flight to Miami to play in the game he has dreamt about for two decades. He can still vividly recall Phil Simms' near flawless performance in Super Bowl XXI as a six-year old and has already started to imagine what it will be like when he walks through the tunnel at Dolphin Stadium this Sunday to play in Super Bowl XLI. "This is moment that I've been waiting for since I knew what football was," Freeney said.
On the eve of his trip down to Florida on Monday night I caught up with Freeney to talk to him about finally beating the Patriots in the postseason, not making it to the Pro Bowl and how he really feels about Peyton Manning's opportunity to finally win the big one.
SI.com: Before we get to the Super Bowl, I wanted to ask you about that AFC Championship game against the Patriots. I've never seen you happier after a game. What was going through your mind when you knew you had finally beaten New England?
Freeney: It was an unbelievable feeling. You play this game to get the big game and try to win it. Throughout my career, and I've been going at it for five years, it's been tough. You've got to have some type of reason for going out there and putting your body on the line and at the end of the season, if you're body is beat up and you have nothing to show for it, its like, 'Dang!' Well, finally I got something to show for it hopefully and we have an opportunity now to have something major to show for it in a Super Bowl win. Beating the Patriots and that whole game, them being the champions that they are, not willing to die, not willing to just lay over and let us take them, it was just an amazing game and a very emotional win.
SI.com: Was it important for you guys to beat the Patriots to finally get to the Super Bowl? Did it make it sweeter to knock off the team that prevented you from making it for so many years?
Freeney: I guess it was little bit sweeter to beat them, but we had no choice. We had to play whoever was next, but definitely, yeah it was sweeter to beat them because of the past history and what went down to the playoff game in 2003, the playoff game in 2004. It's one of those things where you feel the pressure. You have the media putting that pressure on you and putting that monkey and all kinds of stuff on your back and just creating all this pressure whenever you play them. At the end of the day, man, we just went out there and played our game and left it all out there.
SI.com: It kind of looked like it was going to be same old, same old there at the half when the Patriots went in with a 21-6 lead. What were guys saying at the half?
Freeney: Basically you have to understand that this is a team game and you're going to have your ups and downs. Every unit is going to have their ups and downs. It's all about just coming together and having confidence in one another and going out there and playing the way we know how to play; with energy and everybody being accountable and everybody flying to the ball. That's basically what we did. We understood that our backs were to the wall. I mean our backs were to the wall! We knew we had to fight our way out.
SI.com: You guys had to fight your way out of a hole around the middle of the season when you lost four of six games. What was that stretch like? Did you guys ever lose confidence in yourselves or what you guys were doing on the field?
Freeney: You never lose confidence. It would be one thing if we sat here and said, 'OK, well, listen guys, we don't know what's going on and we don't know why or how to stop it.' No. The issue was people were in position to make the plays and they weren't making them. That's a big difference. It's like you have a leak in your basement and you know exactly where it's coming from and you go and fix the leak. That's different than having a leak and not knowing where it's coming from. Then you're in trouble. So at the end of the day we came together as a defense and slowly but surely tried to get things back together and we all knew we had four games to get this thing right. We have three games to get this thing right. Two games, one game, and know we're in the playoffs and this thing better be fixed.
SI.com: What has this season been like for you personally? Your statistics are down across the board but you've said you've never played better.
Freeney: I've had an outstanding year and I almost feel like I kind of got slapped in the face this year by not being elected to the Pro Bowl. I guess they're saying there are three guys who played better than me this year at my position. I don't agree with that. I'm sure you could go around the league and ask guys. Any head coach and defensive coordinator will tell you when it comes down to scheming, they would have to account for me and make sure they have at least couple guys on me. Now because of that I get more double-teams and triple-teams than you would normally see.
Also, because of the fact that we have gotten 400 fewer pass attempts on us than any other team in the National Football League, let's base it on percentages then. Let's not go by the end number, let's base it on the opportunities to get there. If we put a stat up and said how many pressures and quarterback hits a player had this season, there would be nobody close to me. I probably have 10-15 more pressures and quarterback hits than the next closest guy. That would be like if I had 40 sacks and the next guy had 25 or something like that. But the thing is, they all worry about the end number, which is all statistics and sacks and my numbers were down from previously in my career. But like I said there is a lot more that goes into this game and stats do lie.
SI.com: So would you say this has been your most successful season as a player?
Freeney: Definitely, by far, by far. I mean I have heap of tackles for losses, I have a whole lot of pressures and the team has gone the farthest this year. All right, so, at the end of the day, you don't vote me into the Pro Bowl, yeah, all right, but at the end of the day, what bowl would I rather be in? You know what I'm saying? So that's what's most important for me. It just added more fuel to my fire.
SI.com: So how much did that really motivate you towards the end of the season and going into the playoffs when you saw that you weren't voted into the Pro Bowl?
Freeney: Oh, it was amazing motivation. I used it as a major motivational tool. I've done it all my career. Coming into the NFL, they said, 'Dwight, you're too small to play defensive end on a regular basis. You can't play the run. You're too small and not fast enough to do what you did in college.' I mean I heard everything and you use that. I'm not trying to take away from any guy who had a great year and made it in front of me but if you want to stack me up against that guy and take a poll of who is the better defensive end or who has more of an impact on games, I don't know how I don't win. I don't see how I'm not in the top three of those guys.
So at the end of day, it's a big slap in the face. It's like Michael Jordan not making the All-Star Game because his numbers were lower than his career averages. Are we going to say MJ isn't one of the best players? Now I'm not saying I'm the Michael Jordan of football, but I'm going to say that I have the reputation of being one of the most disruptive guys and one of the biggest playmakers and difference-makers in the game. So to not be included in that conversation at the end of the year is amazing to me.
SI.com: Tell me how you changed up your game over the years. You've definitely matured from that raw talent I saw coming out of Syracuse five years ago.
Freeney: Well, you got to change with the times and you got invent new moves. The other guys get paid too, man [laughs]. So it's not just all about you or about them. They're adjusting to you so you have to stay ahead of them. So you have to try and develop your repertoire like a starting pitcher, where you have your reliable pitch like a fastball, you got your closing pitch whether it be your sinker, slider or something else. That's the thing about Roger Clemens. He has a fastball, he has a slider and he has a split-finger and he's going to throw that split-finger like I use my spin move. He has a fastball like I have my speed rush and you just have to keep on evolving. I try to build my repertoire of moves whether it be a bull rush, a rip move, an inside move, I just try to keep the other guy on his toes at all times.
SI.com: What was the toughest or lowest point of the year for you and the team?
Freeney: Oh, that's easy. The low point of the year for me was losing to Jacksonville the way we lost Jacksonville. Oh my God, it was horrible. I mean everybody in the world knew they were going to run the ball. We knew it, everybody knew it and we went out there and laid an egg defensively. It was horrible. It was horrible. Afterwards, I was like, 'Alright guys we got to come up with something. We got to figure out what's wrong.' Then we figured out that we don't have to come up with anything new. It's about mentality. It's about attitude. Let's go out there and play this game like it's supposed to be played, with energy and passion.
SI.com: How much do teams learn from a loss or a tough stretch like the ones you guys had? Do you think it helped that you guys went through that tough time as opposed to last season when you guys went 13-0 and clinched everything and started resting guys going into the playoffs?
Freeney: Here's the thing. You learn things from wins and losses. You learn from both. Now you have to take something from every game that you play and every snap that you play. That's how you get better at this game, so us losing the way that we've lost this year and us giving up those big plays defensively, yes, we learned something from that and we try to correct those problems and move on. But you learn a lot from a win too. It's not always the good stuff, you can learn about the bad stuff in a win too; things that we could have done better.
SI.com: Tell me what it's like to be a defensive player on a team where the offense gets most of the recognition.
Freeney: Well, I mean it's tough. It's kind of like, OK, great the offense shields you from a lot of things. I mean we're not really looking for the media attention and its like, well don't worry about it because we're not going to get it anyway. But at the end of the day, there's more to this team than offense. It's a team game. I've been saying it all year.
I mean, a prime example was Peyton vs. (Tom) Brady. OK. As if they were the only two playing the game. Imagine what that feels like for everybody else that's out there. Are we even out here? I mean why don't we just have two quarterbacks throwing to each other or something like that. I mean they're never on the field at the same time. It's crazy. It's amazing how all of a sudden the media and the NFL has created this game where it's all about the quarterback.
Understand, the quarterback position is the one position out of all the positions that depends the most on everyone else to be successful. More so than any other position. It's the one position that is so not even close to being in a one-on-one situation like a shooting guard or something. First of all he relies on his center to make the snap, he relies on his offensive line to block for him, and he relies on his receivers to run the right route and to get open and to catch the ball. It's not just, well; Peyton is a loser if he doesn't win the big one. It's not just Peyton, it's the whole team if we don't win the game. It's not just Peyton if we win or lose.
It's so funny when everyone talks about the legacy of a quarterback and if he can win the big one. It's not just the quarterback. Believe me. What happens if Peyton throws one touchdown and four interceptions and he's sitting there and we still win the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, it's going to be like Peyton Manning has taken the Colts to a Super Bowl win. At the end of the day, he has definitely contributed, but it's not just him. It's the whole team.
I just think its so funny when we talk about offense and defense recognition. I mean defense gets no recognition but offensive players don't get any recognition either unless you're the quarterback, so it's something I've always had to deal with. I mean, there has to be a change and let's not even take it to the rules where they are trying to protect the quarterback so much to where you can't even touch them. It's almost an extra motivation for me now to get to the quarterback than ever before. I take more pleasure in hitting a quarterback now than I ever have in my life based on these rules that have now been constructed to protect them as if they were, I don't know, I don't know what to call it, like they are separate from every other player.
SI.com: Yeah, there were a couple games this year I think where guys were penalized for bringing down a quarterback too hard.
Freeney: Oh my God. I mean you slap his helmet by accident and officials are like, 'Oh my God, do not hit him.' I mean, what is this? Is he a defenseless player? What? Excuse me? Listen, he is a part of this game like everybody else. He puts his pads on; he puts his shoes on like everybody else. If he sees a guy in his face that's about to hit him he's not defenseless. Move out of the way! Move out of the way and then throw the ball. He doesn't have to make the throw right then. That's part of the game and we're being robbed of that as defensive players. I mean, it's seriously ruining the game honestly. Hopefully it doesn't go too far. Hopefully they can make some changes.
SI.com: Many of these rules have been in place for a number of years in order to protect the quarterback but has this season been the most ridiculous in terms of the penalties that have been called against defensive players?
Freeney: It's ridiculous. Ri-dic-u-lous. Like I said, this is about 11 guys, not just one, alright. It's about everybody winning, everybody losing. It's not about quarterback vs. quarterback. It's not about one-on-one. Are we protecting this one guy because he plays the most highly publicized position and he's the money-maker for the franchise and the NFL, therefore, oh, God forbid if a star quarterback gets hurt its going to hurt our ratings or it's going to hurt our revenue or whatever it is. It's just ridiculous.
SI.com: You know the story line this week is going to be can Peyton Manning finally win the big game.
Freeeney: Oh, God.
SI.com: But that's just the way it is. So I guess you're going have to be happy with people not asking if Dwight Freeney can finally win the big game.
Freeney: Exactly. It's kind of funny. Peyton has been through so much in his career so by no means am I going to take anything away from this moment for him. OK. Alright. That said. At the end of the day, when it's all said and done, it's the team. Everybody has there own story, whether it be our head coach. Whether it be a D-lineman, a nine-year linebacker, I mean everybody has their stories about how they always wanted to be in this game or they were here before and they lost and they want to win this one. So it's about all of us. So we take it for what it is. We understand and let them do what they do. Peyton finally made it to the big one, which he did, but it's the Colts that finally made it to the big one.
SI.com: The other big storyline this week is going to be the fact that two black coaches are in the Super Bowl for the first time ever. Do you think too much is being made about that?
Freeney: No, I don't. I don't think too much is being made of it just because of the history of the game and what has happened as far as black coaches being hired and black general managers that have been hired. The fact that there are more black players in this league than any other other [race] yet that doesn't translate into ownership and other prominent positions. So it will be a great day when we don't have to mention this, really, because at the end of the day, a man brought a team to the Super Bowl. This is a first, so it needs to be highlighted just based on the history of this country and this league with this type of thing. It really is remarkable.
SI.com: Tell me what it's like to play for Tony Dungy. I think he's one of the few coaches in the league where nobody has anything negative to say about the man.
Freeney: Nobody. I mean I think Tony is an unbelievable coach based on the fact that he brings such a confidence and treats everybody like men. He doesn't have to yell and scream or curse you out or threaten you. He has his ways of doing it. Everybody is accountable, everybody knows their job, so go out there and do it. It's simple. It's like a subtle confidence. He's a genius with the Cover-2 scheme. He's been a product of that in Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and now here where he lets his playmakers make plays.
SI.com: What are you feeling right now before you head down to Miami for the biggest game of your career?
Freeney: It's starting to set in now. I'm getting a lot of calls from people trying to get tickets or whatever and it's a dream come true. This is the stuff that you dream about. This is stuff I dreamed about back when I was six and saw the first football game that I can remember between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos. Ever since then it's you grow up trying to get to that big game.
SI.com: Now be honest. I know you don't get nervous before games, but are there going to be a few butterflies in your stomach as you walk out of the tunnel on Sunday? I mean you've been waiting to play in this game 20 years.
Freeney: No, it's just going to be a rush of adrenaline for me. There's nothing better. I get goose bumps man. I just love going out there and representing. It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm already starting to picture what it's going to be like. Going out there and hearing the crowd. Hearing the boos from the Bears fans and hearing the cheers from the Colts fans. It's going to be a strange game because you're not at home so you're going to be hearing both fans. It's going to funny. I know I'm going to be loving it and I'm going to suck it up and take it all in and be one with the game.