TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Dwight Freeney said he was a week away from retiring from the NFL when Arizona coach Bruce Arians called to offer him a job.
Freeney said he was on an airplane that was about to take off.
“The door was closing,” he said. “The flight attendants were telling everyone to put away their cell phones. I am looking at my phone seeing that it is B.A. I am telling her to hold on. She is telling me to get off the phone.
“It was great when he called me. I said, ‘Yeah, I am ready to get off the couch, let’s go man,’ and it has been a ride ever since.”
Since joining the Cardinals in mid-October, Freeney has shown he still can get to the quarterback.
The 35-year-old outside linebacker, in his 14th NFL season, has nine sacks in his 12 games with the team, including one last week in Arizona’s 26-20 overtime playoff win over Green Bay.
It was Freeney’s 10th postseason sack. Only seven players in NFL history have more. Without him, the Cardinals’ pass rush off the edge isn’t much, so he’s a critical component to the Cardinals’ hopes of beating Carolina on Sunday in the NFC championship game in what will be Freeney’s 18th postseason game.
“Dwight’s a pro’s pro,” defensive James Bettcher said. “The first day he’s here, he’s in there watching tape. He’s prepping himself. He’s there early every morning. He’s here late every day.”
Freeney matched his career best of three sacks in Arizona’s 38-8 rout of Green Bay in the next-to-last game of the regular season. On one sack he stripped the ball from Aaron Rodgers and the Cardinals’ Jerraud Powers returned it for a touchdown.
For the effort, Freeney was selected the NFC defensive player of the week.
He earned five such honors in the AFC in his 11 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, who selected him 11th overall out of Syracuse in the 2002 draft.
He and Robert Mathis combined to bring a ferocious pass rush for the Colts, helping the team win the Super Bowl in the 2006 season. Freeney and the Colts parted ways after the 2012 season, and he spent two years with the San Diego Chargers.
This season, he worked on his golf game and contemplated calling it quits.
Freeney said he heard from “a bunch of teams” that wanted him.
“The thing is I didn’t want to go to a place where I was going to lose,” he said. “I have played long enough to know that I want to be in a place that has the right attitude and has the right pieces to win a championship.”
He found that place in the desert.
“I think this team has so many pieces,” Freeney said. “You have Bruce, who is a great coach and I have a great familiarity with him from Indianapolis — coach of the year last year. You have legends like (assistant head coach) Tom Moore. I have known Tom Moore forever.”
He said the Arizona offense reminds him of the high-powered ones on the Colts’ best teams.
“And you have a defense that is stacked, loaded with all types of talent,” he said. “So it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Freeney signed for the veteran’s minimum of $870,000 with incentives. He got an additional $200,000 when he reached four sacks and another $100,000 for each sack thereafter up to $1 million. So he is at $700,000 and counting.
“As a player, you always have to think the best of yourself,” Freeney said. “I don’t care, I could be 90 years old and think that I can come out here and have a three-sack game. … I always knew I could still play.”
Now comes the formidable challenge of trying to get to and take down the powerful Cam Newton.
“It is definitely going to take a conscious effort from all of the guys going after him,” Freeney said, “whether it be a four-man rush or five or six, whatever it is, because he is so elusive. The thing is that he can scramble. He is a strong guy, so he can throw you off. It will take two or three guys to take him down.”
But Freeney said his trademark spin move is “oiled up and ready to go.”