Freeney Will Play and Likely Prosper
That's not the question.
This is: since the NFL is notorious for its gamesmanship (ahem, lying), especially with a world championship on the line, is Freeney really hobbling? Oh, and if Freeney is hobbling, is he doing so to the point that his right ankle deserves all of this attention throughout both hemispheres?
Hall of Famer Rod Woodson is a legendary tough guy who knows a few things about injuries. He told FanHouse on Tuesday, "If you're the Colts, you're going to limit Freeney on Sunday to what he can do -- if he's hurt."
If he's hurt? Said Woodson, nodding while continuing without blinking, "If he's not injured, then you just play the guy."
To hear Freeney tell it during his packed interview session for Tuesday's Media Day at Sun Life Stadium, he has a torn ligament on the outside part of that right ankle. And, yes, the thing was visibly swollen, maybe to the size of a golf ball. He suffered the injury more than a week ago in the final minutes of the Colts' victory over the New York Jets during the AFC championship game. He hasn't practiced since then, which doesn't sound good. So given that he said he has done "everything imaginable" to heal the ankle -- ranging from different chiropractors to a hyperbaric chamber to home remedies -- you would think that he'd be walking around between now and Sunday's game in a protective boot or something.
Instead, Freeney took his place behind his podium on Tuesday wearing flip-flops and a sloppy smile.
"I really have just been dealing with this thing day to day," said Freeney, a notoriously fast healer, with a little laugh, while speaking in public for the first time since the injury. "I wake up every morning thinking that I'm healed. Then I take that first step ... (groan) ... and then I say to myself, 'Uh, fine. I've got a little bit more work to do.' I just try to stay positive. That's all I really can do. Try to get back for my team and see what I can do."
Oh, he'll play. But with or without Freeney sprinting (or moving quickly in spurts, or just doing the best he can) from the right side of their defensive line, the Colts will continue as a swarming and speedy force. Still, Freeney is a significant player. Since 2002, nobody in the NFL has forced more fumbles than his 36. It's just that Robert Mathis is second to Freeney during that stretch with 35 -- Mathis normally starts at left defensive end for the Colts and is quite healthy
Then there is Raheem Brock, the healthy and underrated eighth-year player for the Colts, who fills out their defensive line rotation. After a quick survey of Colts players and coaches on Tuesday, Brock was voted the team's third-best pass rusher. It's not like they don't have others who can terrorize quarterbacks, because they do, including Gary Brackett, their cerebral middle linebacker.
Woodson nodded at this. That's because he knows. He knows a lot of things to put this Freeney thing into perspective.
"If the Colts can win on first and second down with Brock (as Freeney's replacement, but only playing left end while Mathis switches to the right side), and then bring in Dwight on third down, that helps that football team," said Woodson, who works for the NFL Network after making 11 trips to the Pro Bowl as a defensive back. He reached Canton because of that -- and also because of his grit.
Most famously, Woodson tore his ACL during the first game of the 1995 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers after he tried to tackle Barry Sanders on an unforgiving artificial surface. While some need more than a year to recover from such an injury that requires reconstructive surgery of the knee, others never return.
Well, Woodson was back at the end of the season to play in the Super Bowl, which is why the following is significant:
"I would have to believe that this guy is going to be on the field," said Woodson, referring to Freeney. "This is the biggest game of the year, and this is his second Super Bowl in four years. It's hard for players who are very competitive not to play at this point. So I would believe that he's going to be on the field."
And what is the hobbling (or not) Freeney thinking right now? Woodson said, after pausing to reflect on his slew of times in this situation, "He's preparing himself to get totally healthy by getting treatment -- what three, four, five times a day. He's not going to try to put too much pressure on the leg itself, and mentally, in your mind, you have to know that the leg is feeling better each and every day. And if that's the case on Sunday, he will play. I have to think that he is going to play."
That's because Freeney will play, swollen ankle or not, and the Saints know it. Then again, they haven't a choice but to think that way after they botched a similar situation during the regular season.
With the Saints at 13-0, they faced a Dallas Cowboys team that had superlative linebacker DeMarcus Ware carried off the field on a cart during the game before. He suffered his version of Freeney's ankle with a sprained neck. All week long, the question was, "Will Ware play against the Saints or won't he?"
Ware played. He even played the whole game, and he forced Saints quarterback Drew Brees into two sacks that produced a couple a fumbles, including one that sealed the Cowboys' victory at the end.
Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "We assumed all week that DeMarcus was going to play. We even prepared all week that DeMarcus was going to start. I think what happened in that game was that we got into situations that favored him. We were behind. We had to throw the ball a lot throughout the game to catch up, and in the same way it benefits any defensive player, it gets magnified when you're talking about a DeMarcus Ware or a Dwight Freeney.
"Obviously, Freeney is an elite player in this league. But at the same time, they've got guys behind him. You don't get to this point without having depth. Whatever situation they'll face -- with or without Freeney -- they'll be prepared."
They'll have Freeney, though.
They'll have the Woodson clone.