After near retirement, Dwight Freeney now eyeing Super Bowl

By on January 24, 2016

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Sunday, January 24, 2016, 12:13 PM

CHARLOTTE – Dwight Freeney was sitting on a plane, on the verge of retirement, ready to spend day after day after day fixing a golf swing that he just couldn’t get right. And that’s when he remembers Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians calling him in October, begging him to give football one last try.

“I actually texted him,” Freeney recalled. “It was like one round I shot over 100 on the golf course one day and I was like, ‘Bruce, please I need help’. I was one week away from retiring and I was actually doing some interviews and trying to figure out what I was going to do after, and he called me on the plane and the door was closing.

“The flight attendants were telling everyone to put away all cell phones. I am looking at my phone and seeing it is B.A. I am telling her hold on; she’s telling me to get off the phone. I said (to Arians), ‘Yeah, I am ready to get off the couch, let’s go man.’ It has been a ride ever since.”

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It’s a ride that had the 35-year-old defensive end in the spotlight on Sunday evening at Bank of America Stadium, where the Cardinals will face the mighty Carolina Panthers in the NFC title game. Less than four months after he’d been a bad golfer, he was the key piece of a pass rush that had to contain Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, perhaps the NFL’s most deadly offensive weapon.

But after emerging as the latest success story in Arians’ Arizona Fountain of Youth, Freeney had entered the game ready. Despite all those months on the couch and despite sitting nearly untouched throughout free agency last spring, Freeney had led the Cardinals with eight sacks during the regular season.

He was one of several aging veterans who’d pieced together career seasons in the desert, along with QB Carson Palmer, 36, who emerged as an MVP candidate with 4,671 passing yards and 35 TDs, and receiver Larry Fitzgerald, 32, who rose from the ashes of three straight mediocre seasons to post a career-high 109 receptions.

Arians, 63, was also something of a dinosaur, a coach who didn’t get his shot until the Cards hired him in 2013. But he spent 2015 creating a masterpiece, blending those aging vets with youngsters such as rookie running back David Johnson and second-year speedster receiver John Brown to create one of the NFC’s finest teams.

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Just months after nearly walking away from football, Dwight Freeney is a win away from the Super Bowl.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

And it had been Freeney who had leaped off that couch to supply the pass rush, with a year that nobody had thought possible. Freeney entered the year with 111.5 career sacks, but he’d seemed washed-up in recent years, with nine combined sacks over his previous three seasons. He blamed that on circumstances, though; injuries had limited him to just four games in 2013, and in 2014, he’d played on a San Diego Chargers team that struggled to find consistency all year.

“I always knew I could still play,” he said. “I could be 90 years old and think that I can come out here and have a three-sack game. It may not happen, but you have to have confidence in your ability and that is what I always have. It is just a matter of timing sometimes, situations.

“I am not going to say I am running like I am 25,” he added, “but probably 31 or something like that.”

He’ll all that ferocity against Newton, the quarterback who practically willed the Panthers to become the league’s highest-scoring unit (31.3 points per game) during the regular season.

“It is definitely going to take a conscious effort from all of the guys going after him,” Freeney said before the game. “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, so it will take two or three guys to take him down.”

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