The phone call came just as the door was closing on Dwight Freeney’s flight to a job interview.
The caller-ID said “Bruce Arians” so Freeney definitely had to answer, just as the flight attendant scolded him to turn off his cell phone. He kept talking, pleading with his free hand for the flight attendant to cut him some slack.
“It was great when he called me,” Freeney recalled Thursday at the Arizona Cardinals’ training facility. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to get off the couch. Let’s go, man!’ and it has been a ride ever since.”
Arians opened the door to the second act of Freeney’s football career. He was within a week of filing retirement papers when Arians called. He jumped on a flight to Phoenix, was watching film in Tempe the next morning and has had a huge impact on the 14-3 team that will show up at Bank of America Stadium Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl.
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Freeney plays outside linebacker in the Cardinals’ 3-4 scheme, but his primary responsibility is still what it was as a defensive end with the Indianapolis Colts: Chase down the quarterback. He had eight sacks in 11 games, twice as many has he had total his previous two seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
Freeney was getting sick of playing golf every day so he reached out to Arians in September to see if there was any interest. Arians couldn’t commit right then, but he advised Freeney to stay in shape because the call could be coming.
“I was getting sick of sitting, watching everyone on NFL Sunday and I was on a golf course trying to work on my swing. My swing was falling apart in September.
“It was great that he called me. We have a great relationship.”
Freeney had worked with Arians when Arians was an assistant coach with the Colts. Freeney wasn’t looking for just any chance to play. He says plenty of other teams called, but he was looking for a specific fit: Enough talent and experience already to have a real shot at a championship.
“I didn’t want to go to a place where I was going to lose. 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,” Freeney said.
“I remember how it felt to win, and when you get that, I wouldn’t say it is a sickness, but it is contagious.”
Freeney saw similarities to the best Colts teams when he was there: A solid defense to complement a loaded offense. A future Hall of Fame candidate in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and a productive quarterback in Carson Palmer were already in place.
Freeney added plenty, including a sack of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a 10-yard loss in the fourth quarter of the division-round playoff victory. Over 11 games he has a team-high eight sacks.
“Dwight’s a pro’s pro,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said.
“The first day he’s in there watching tape, he’s prepping himself. He’s here early every morning. He’s here late every day. He watches a ton of tape on his own. I get countless text messages from him with what he sees and those things.
“His understanding of the game at this point in time in his career is something that helped him get right in and get going with things.”
Freeney kept laughing Thursday at how well this has worked out, how fortunate he was to get off the golf course.
“One round I shot over 100 on the golf course,” Freeney recalled, “and I was like, ‘Bruce, please I need help.’”
Turns out the Cardinals needed the help. And Freeney delivered it.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell