Allen Park — There had been flirtations for years, but it wasn’t until last week, when need intersected with opportunity, that Dwight Freeney finally made it to Detroit.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell always has held Freeney in the highest regard. As the coach at Wake Forest, Caldwell tried to recruit Freeney out of high school, and the pair spent a decade together in Indianapolis.
During his four seasons in Detroit, Caldwell always has spoken fondly of Freeney’s skills and work ethic, but when the veteran had been a free agent each of the past three offseason, the Lions didn’t have a pressing need for the aging edge rusher.
“Opportunities come different ways, different situations,” Caldwell said. “And we do what we need to do at the time that we need to get it done. And so, we needed it last week, we got it done and I think that’s probably the best way that I can explain it to you other than that.”
The Lions claimed Freeney off waivers last week. He figures to play a key role in the team’s defensive-line rotation starting this week when the Lions travel to Baltimore.
But before he landed with Lions, whenever he wasn’t contractually obligated to another team, Freeney always checked in with Caldwell.
“Every year, the offseason is kind of like, ‘OK, I’ll text Jim,’” Freeney said. “I know he’s on the golf course, I’m on the golf course. ‘So how’s the golf game?’ We usually start there, and then we kind of go into, you need me or what this year? He’s always said to me, ‘Hey Dwight, just stay ready, we might call on you, we’ll see what happens.’”
Freeney, 37, appeared in 18 games for the Atlanta Falcons last season — 15 in the regular season and three more in the playoffs. He finished the year with 10 tackles and 3.0 sacks, and after an offseason assessment, he determined he wasn’t done playing.
But even though the phone was ringing this offseason, no one was offering a contract. Freeney said the Lions were one of four teams that continued to express interest throughout the year.
“That was one of those teams that kept me on that little hook, like I was a worm on the end of that hook and they were like, ‘Hey, Dwight, stay ready, we’re going to call you any moment now, any second now,’ “ Freeny said.
Freeney finally ended up getting a call from Seattle, flashing his pass-rush ability during his brief four-game stint with the organization. He managed to match his 2016 sack total in four games. But when the team had a sudden, desperate need for linebacking depth, they were forced to waive Freeney, a decision that stunned the veteran.
“The GM was really apologetic and said how embarrassed he was to do this,” Freeney said.
The waiver process was new to Freeney and he called it an emotional roller coaster. He was prepared to call it a career if it didn’t go how he wanted.
“Thank God it was this team,” he said. “I told my agent, ‘I’m not going to go to just anybody. I’ll retire before I do that.’ And then Detroit called me, and that was a place I actually wanted to go to.”
The move re-connects him not only with Caldwell, but defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was a position coach at Syracuse during Freeney’s college days.
“To be with Teryl, it’s definitely been a blessing and I’m excited to be part of his scheme,” Freeney said “You guys have, here, a great base. We just have to turn a corner here and stop the run a little bit more and get after the quarterback. But I don’t think changes what team you’re on, no matter your situation, you’ve got to do those two things and I think TA is the guy that can make that happen.”
Freeney doesn’t know how much he’ll play, but he says he’s been training to play more than 50 snaps per week. He played 41 in Week 9 for the Seahawks, but barring injuries, the Lions will probably play him fewer than 30 each week.
“However they want to use me, I’m OK with it,” Freeney said. “I still love the game. I love to play on Sunday.”