SAN DIEGO -- If there were fines for coaches being late to staff meetings, Joe Barry would lead the group. It's not that he means or wants to be late. It's that each time the Chargers' linebackers coach ends his position meetings, veteran newcomer Dwight Freeney pulls him aside for one-on-one counseling, preventing Barry from getting upstairs for the start of the coaches' conference.
"I have to do that," Freeney said. "I want as much knowledge as I can soak up from him. I want to know the ins and outs of the ins and outs of this defense. I want to know where I can take a chance and where I can't take a chance. The longer you play in this game, the more you realize that the better you know the system, the more comfortable you become in it, the faster you can play. You're not guessing. You're not moving in slow motion."
Freeney is in a definite hurry these days -- to learn the defense, to get to the season, to prove to outsiders he's still a dominant pass rusher. From 2002-11 only Jared Allen (105) had more sacks than Freeney, who totaled 102.5. However a new defensive scheme and a high ankle sprain contributed to Freeney finishing with just five last season, the second fewest of his career.
Typically such injuries require at least six weeks to heal, but Freeney chose to play through it and missed only two games. He knew the decision -- along with his age: he turned 33 in February -- might hurt him in the offseason, when his contract expired.
Still, he was completely caught off guard by what transpired. First, the Colts failed to offer him a new deal. Then other clubs took a wait-and-see approach. And finally whispers became murmurs that he was a descending player.
"I wished they would have offered me something so I could've retired a Colt -- that was something that meant a lot to me -- but at the end of the day they didn't give me an option," Freeney said. "They didn't even try to re-sign me. They were like, We're going in a different direction.
"That cut me deep because it was kind of like, if it's a money issue talk to me about it and maybe I'll say it's fine just so I'll be able to stay and not move and all that stuff. But the fact of the matter is, they didn't offer me anything. They just said, Bye bye, which made me feel like, You think I'm done and I'm washed up; or, You're playing for the future and this is the perfect opportunity to make the change because there's a young guy you really feel can play now, so let's groom him because, really, how many years does Dwight have left? It's the same thing they did with Peyton [Manning]."
Sometimes there's greater meaning in how a person says something than what he actually says. Such is the case with Freeney. He's smiling but there's an edge to his words and an intensity to his gaze when asked if San Diego is getting a motivated player.
"Absolutely," he said. "A highly motivated player -- highly motivated. It's going to be a fun year. Just wreak havoc on teams that either passed up [on me] or thought this or thought that. It's going to be fun.
"Listen to me. I'm trying to tell you that if I stay healthy -- God willing; please, Lord, please -- I'm going to have some serious fun because I have a lot to prove. I haven't felt I have this much to prove since I was a rookie. They drafted me 11th overall, which was great, but everyone around the league thought I was drafted too high. He's too small to play the game. He's too small to play the position. There was so much motivation for me to go out and prove everybody wrong. The last thing you want to do is give me some extra motivation, so now it's: He's done. We'll see. It's going to be fun."
At the end of last season Freeney pulled cut-ups of every pass that quarterbacks attempted when he was on the field. He used his stopwatch to time how long it took for each pass to be released, then did the math and came away with an average of 2.5 seconds.
Next he pulled cut-ups of every pass that quarterbacks attempted when Allen, the Vikings' sacks leader, was on the field. He then reached for his stopwatch, timed each release, wrote it down, did the math and came away with an average of 3.0 seconds.
Finally, he pulled cut-ups of every pass attempted against 49ers rush maven Aldon Smith. Again, Freeney reached for the stopwatch, timed each release, wrote it down, did the math, and came away with an average of 3.0 seconds.
"They say if the quarterback holds on to the ball for 3 seconds, you should have a chance to get a sack -- a chance," Freeney said. "Well, they held it an average of 2.5 seconds when I was on the field. Two. Point. Five. Seconds. That means I have to pretty much make my guy miss and then get lucky enough to have the quarterback hold onto the ball. ...
"You get judged by your numbers too often in this game. It's unfortunate because it's kind of like a double-edged sword. You go out there and you play hard and you don't get the numbers, and you feel like, Man, his numbers dropped so he ain't the same guy. Not necessarily. If you really watch film and you understand this game, you understand that sometimes they turn the protection to you. Sometimes the ball is gone quickly."
The Chargers have seen nothing to suggest Freeney is slipping. Some speculated that they might use him as a situational rusher, but that's not the case. Freeney believes San Diego's 3-4 system fits him better than the one Indy used last year, because he's being asked to play one gap instead of two. That allows him to play with the same leverage he would as a rush end in a 3-4 system.
Still, his current focus is learning the ins and outs of the ins and outs.
"He's like don't spoon-feed me. Give me everything, the drops, the rushes, the base, the nickel," said Barry. "Sometimes when there's a great player and you don't know the guy -- you know of him but you don't know him -- you kind of have a preconceived notion of what the guy's going to be coming in. Dwight? You talk about passionate? He's passionate about pass rush, no doubt. But he's passionate about football. That's why every night I'm late for our staff meeting because he hangs back and wants to talk football. Finally I'm like, 'Dude, I've got to go. I'm going to get my [rear-end] ripped.' But it's cool because you can see how much he still loves playing the game."