Dwight Freeney retires a Colt, but organization needs to recapture winning culture he helped create

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – He looked fit, more than capable of trading his crisp charcoal suit for that ol’ reliable 93 jersey and seeking out another quarterback to smack around.

Dwight Freeney, 38, was back in the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center Monday afternoon – back where it all began 16 years ago – to officially close a decorated NFL career. The end came, appropriately, with the Indianapolis Colts, with whom he spent the first 11 seasons of his Hall of Fame-worthy career wreaking havoc by piling up 107.5 of his career 125.5 sacks and pile-driving 53 different quarterbacks.

The ever-present smile was there, as was the contagious personality. Perhaps most important, Freeney has his health and undoubtedly a tee time at some spiffy golf course in the next few days.

“This is a young man’s game,’’ he said before signing a one-day contract to retire as a Colt. “I think they switched it up over the years. It turned into a young guy’s game. I still love the game. I think I can still play, maybe.

“I had a great time and I wanted to see what life had to offer outside of football.’’

Freeney’s presence amid the on-going construction on West 56th Street also served as a vivid reminder of what general manager Chris Ballard envisions as he reworks the Colts.

It’s all about building a home-grown culture. It’s all about drafting and developing and cultivating an environment that doesn’t hope for success, but expects it and demands it.

These latest Colts aren’t there. Not yet. How could they be? The core of the roster revolves around Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Anthony Castonzo. That’s a good start, but c’mon.

Of the 78 players currently under contract, 50 are 25 or younger and nine have never appeared in a regular-season game. That youth movement will intensify this week with the addition of at least nine draft picks – we’re not ruling out another trade-back by Ballard – and maybe a dozen undrafted rookies.

A winning culture doesn’t simply transfer from one year to the next, one group of players to the successors. It grows day after day, week after week, year after year.

And only a fool would deny the value of a winning culture.

Only a fool would look at Dwight Freeney and deny he and so many like him are what’s needed in the Colts’ locker room. Yes, the talent, but more than that. What’s needed are the inherent traits he and others – Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Tarik Glenn, Gary Brackett, David Thornton, Ryan Diem, Robert Mathis and on and on – brought to the franchise.

“He’s everything that embodies what we want in a Colt,’’ Ballard said last week. “He’s athletic. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He’s a good teammate. He cared about football. He cared about his teammates. He cared about, worked at his craft.

“He’s everything you want.’’

Owner Jim Irsay, part of the introductory ceremony, described Freeney as “the disruptor, the hurricane, whatever you want to call him. With Dwight you would turn on the film and it was mayhem. You would be instantly drawn to that side of the field . . . ‘Uh oh, bar fight.’ It was something.

“One of the greatest football players I have ever seen in my life. He’s gonna go into the Hall of Fame even if him and I have to go there and break in.’’

Freeney’s 125.5 career sacks are tied for 17th in NFL history. His 107.5 sacks with the Colts rank second to his long-time friend and QB-hating companion Mathis (a team record 123).

Irsay praised the ultra-talented Freeney for maximizing his skills.

“Yes, he worked hard,’’ he said. “And he had his own way of going about things. The great ones do.’’

The truly great ones also possess a infectious trait that’s undeniable. They elevate the performance of those around them.

And if a franchise is fortunate enough to amass enough of those great players, something rare is possible. From 2000-09, the Colts set an NFL record for wins in a decade (115). They went to two Super Bowls, winning a world championship with their 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. They might have added a second against New Orleans after the 2009 season had Freeney not had to play on one leg after rupturing ligaments in his right ankle in the AFC title game against the New York Jets.

With Freeney, Mathis, Manning, James, Harrison, Brackett and so many others setting the tone on the field and in the locker room, the Colts expected to win. Every. Single. Game.

“It’s something that doesn’t happen often,’’ Freeney said. “Obviously you’ve got to have some winning to build that. I think we had the right guys in the room. I think that’s hat’s off to Jim and Bill Polian for selecting high character guys and guys that got it. Not just picking guys because (they’re) good.

“We had a great mesh of people where it’s a family atmosphere. That just breeds confidence.’’

And that led to unparalleled success.

During Freeney’s 11 seasons in Indy, the Colts were 122-54 (.693) with 10 playoff appearances. He led the NFL in sacks in 2004 (16) and was voted to seven Pro Bowls.

He was so much a part of that culture, the type Ballard is in the midst of recreating.

“Those years when we were humming, those were the golden years where every single game we expected to win,’’ Freeney said. “If we lost, it would be like, ‘There’s no way we lost.’ We had a great run here during the 2000s. We definitely did it up.

“It was just that camaraderie, that family atmosphere, the type of guys we had in there,’’ Freeney said. “The true competitors.’’

Culture. Then and, Ballard hopes, now and moving forward.

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