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Hard To Handle
Michael Silver
February 13, 2007
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February 13, 2007

Hard To Handle


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DWIGHT FREENEY respects Peyton Manning and likes him as a person, but "he's a quarterback," Freeney says, enunciating the word with the same disdain that former president Bush reserved for liberal. "I mean, imagine going through life like that--having everything so easy, being so soft, wearing a different colored jersey in practice to symbolize you can't be touched. It pisses me off. And Peyton's a quarterback's son--he's been that way since birth!" Were Freeney to play for another team, he says, "I'd have a giant picture of Peyton painted on the ceiling above my bed."

Lest Manning take it personally, Freeney feels that way about all quarterbacks. "You have to realize what it's like for defensive players," Freeney says. "We're all out there trying to get a chunk of change from Nike or Reebok, and then you find out that one of the best [defensive] players in the league, an All-Pro every year, is making way less on his [shoe company] deal than some quarterback who hasn't even taken his team to the playoffs. It's like, you get peanuts and Kyle Boller is eating chocolate-covered almonds."

The son of Jamaican-born parents, Freeney was a goalkeeper on his high school soccer team in Bloomfield, Conn., until he switched sports before his sophomore season at the urging of the football coach, who loved his size and speed. After earning high school All-America honors, he went to Syracuse, where as a junior he had 4 1/2 sacks in a breathtaking game against fleet-footed Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick and as a senior led the nation with 17 1/2. Timed at 4.38 seconds in the 40 by scouts before the 2002 draft, the 6'1", 265-pound Freeney figured he was a surefire first-rounder before he began hearing the noise from draftniks about his size. "I was getting murdered," Freeney says. "After listening to Mel Kiper, I didn't know I'd made a play in college."

Colts president Bill Polian and his newly hired coach, defensive guru Tony Dungy, however, had a different opinion of Freeney and took him with the 11th pick. He quickly made his new bosses look good, finishing third in the NFL with 13 sacks as a rookie despite starting only eight games. Reversing years of "bigger is better" coaching groupthink, the relatively small but explosive Freeney was blowing past massive offensive tackles as if he were in a FasTrak toll lane.

By now Freeney, whose mother, Joy, was a Jamaican Olympic prospect in the 400-meter dash, has proved that speed kills against bigger opponents; indeed, he's smoked more fatties than Bob Marley. Freeney has a career average of .715 sacks per game (56 1/2 sacks in 79). He's been told that one team prepared for him by having a defensive back line up for the scout team at right defensive end--two steps offside.

Were Freeney relying on speed alone, he'd be hard enough to contain; throw in his array of killer moves, including a 360-degree spin, and he's an opposing coach's biggest headache. And like his idol, Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Freeney is adept at stripping the ball, whipping his arm like a windmill as he descends upon the quarterback. Already he has forced 27 fumbles in his career, including three against Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer in a 34--16 Monday-night win on Dec. 18.

Says Dungy, "I compare him to Randy Moss in that even when he doesn't make a play, he has an impact on games because of the way teams adjust to his presence." ´┐ŻBecause teams use backs and tight ends as extra blockers on Freeney, his linemates are being single-blocked--fellow end Robert Mathis, not Freeney, actually led the team in sacks, with 9 1/2--and the Colts' linebackers and defensive backs have fewer receivers to cover. While Manning and All-Pro wideout Marvin Harrison remain the team's marquee players, Freeney and his fellow defenders are fast gaining respect.

"They've certainly taken a lot of heat over the years, but right now they have a little swagger to them," Manning says of his teammates on defense. "I like that they're getting attention. It's about time."

You know what Freeney would say to that. Yeah, whatever--quarterback.