RENTON — If Cliff Avril had gotten hurt only one week later, Dwight Freeney may not now be a new Seattle Seahawks pass-rusher with Hall-of-Fame credentials.
On Oct. 1, Avril, Seattle’s Pro Bowl defensive end, lost feeling in his hands and arms from getting kicked under the chin in a game against Indianapolis. Soon after John Schneider picked up the phone.
The Seahawks’ general manager called to find out if Freeney wanted to chase and sack quarterbacks again.
“I was literally one week away (from walking away from football for good),” the 37-year-old, seven-time Pro Bowler said Wednesday, his first day as Seattle’s new defensive end for the rest of this season.
Avril’s scary injury has him on injured reserve and deciding about neck surgery. It also has created this opportunity for the Seahawks to add the most accomplished sack man available for the next few months.
Freeney is a former Super Bowl champion with Indianapolis. He is the same age as his new defensive coordinator.
So, he’s suddenly, uh, the most experienced man on an already prideful, experienced defense.
“His experience? I’m sure he’s going to love that you out it like that,” cornerback Richard Sherman joked.
Freeney said he had offers from other teams, including Atlanta for which he played last season. But he had no interest in signing with anybody this summer after the Falcons let his contract expire. 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. The first two months of this NFL season was his first not playing football since 1994, when he was a freshman soccer goalkeeper at Bloomfield High School in Connecticut. As this September became October, Freeney realized he wanted to play again.
He waited for a call. While he did, a superstar with a Super Bowl ring, 15 years and $97 million earned in his career was in Newport Beach, California, and Indianapolis, worked out in public gyms.
“Multiple gyms,” he said. “When you don’t have a team you just can’t go to the team that you last played with. (So I went) wherever I could find.”
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.
Then Avril got hurt, 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 the Seahawks are expecting Freeney to play against the Texans. Freeney will likely play right defensive end, the side he’s been on his entire career.
Michael Bennett, Seattle’s other Pro Bowl end, is playing through a plantar-fascia injury in his right foot. He is barely practicing but is expected to play again Sunday. He played 88 percent of the defensive snaps this past 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, away from near 90 percent. The Seahawks think he can also help with this: They have just 12 sacks through six games, tied for 27th in the 32-team NFL.
Freeney had eight sacks in 11 games in 2015 with Arizona. He had three sacks in 15 games last season, when the Falcons paced his play as a situational rusher. He 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.
“We are going to mix him in, see how he does,” 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 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. 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 had three sacks in 15 regular-season games last year for the Falcons, then another sack and seven pressures of Tom Brady in Super Bowl 51 in February, 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 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 (now, 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.”
As offensive line coach Tom Cable was beginning his weekly meeting with the media off the side of the field following practice, Doug Baldwin came over and put his arm around the coach.
Three days earlier, Baldwin shoved Cable while the offense was gathering to talk on the sidelines in the second quarter of the win at the Giants. It was when the Seahawks’ offense was malfunctioning again and trailing 1-6 New York 7-0. Baldwin apologized to Cable that day, and publicly after the game, and said he wanted quarterback Russell Wilson and players to speak to players at that time, not a coach.
“I think it’s a player competing and a coach competing to keep everybody together and not get out of whack. As you can see at that time, we were kind of headed there,” Cable said. “We were doing so many good things. If I remember right, 49 plays, 220-something yards, and you just have three points. You really want to just stay on it, and yet make the plays and the scoring plays that are available to you.
“It’s frustration and it’s good that they care. So I think nothing of it. I think it was great. I think Doug handled it beautifully, and we’re done with it.”
Justin Britt missed practice and likely will again Thursday. He’s resting and treating the ankle he sprained in the win over New York. Rookie Ethan Pocic worked at center. Cable, when asked if Britt had a chance to play against Houston, said: “It looks like it.”