The Dallas offensive line has been, for lack of a better term, offensive through much of the 2012 regular season. No one with any knowledge of the personnel charged with protecting quarterback Tony Romo should have expected much different.
Despite everything, the Cowboys are over .500 again, and they still have a fair shot at postseason play.
But how good are those chances when it comes to the playoffs?
Whatever they are or will be, you can bet that better play on the offensive line will have to be included in any Super Bowl push in order to be considered anything other than a fluke.
Receiver Dez Bryant’s status is a huge factor but also a different discussion.
A major decision under full scrutiny right now is the offseason idea of switching tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free from where they played a year ago. This isn’t the first time in recent seasons that owner and general manager Jerry Jones has entertained the idea of trying to answer two questions with the same answer on the offensive line.
With Smith, a first-round selection in the 2011 NFL draft, the move from right tackle to left may have some validity but even that comes under some raised eye brows given the fact that Smith did not play left tackle in college.
But with Free, Jones seems to have gambled on a limited showcase back in 2009 and come up pretty empty-handed since locking up the Northern Illinois alumni with a four-year, $32 million contract in the summer of 2011.
As Free continues struggling with the move back over to right tackle this season, questions linger regarding whether or not Free can maintain a starting role as a tackle in Dallas.
Enter Jermey Parnell.
Here’s a guy that just doesn’t have much of a story to this point.
But already there’s some evidence emerging that Parnell is making a positive role as he is gradually taking playing time from Free.
Parnell attended University Mississippi and initially entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans, a team that was heading toward its first Super Bowl win later that season.
Considering that the Cowboys have won four of their past five games, it might not be coincidence that Parnell’s sudden emergence onto the field fits nicely within the recent victories.
Parnell, having played much more basketball than football in college, filled in for an injured Smith at left tackle throughout much of the Cleveland game, a tight contest decided in overtime in Dallas’ favor. He has also started appearing frequently in place of Free, among the most disappointing offensive lineman in the NFL this season.
Head coach Jason Garrett used a rotation of Free and Parnell throughout the Cincinnati game last Sunday, and it is hard to say exactly what impact Parnell made but something was positive.
Parnell has a limited but interesting story that not many know about.
He played four years of basketball with the Rebels but only one season of football as a senior. Apparently former head coach Houston Nutt was able to convince Parnell to play just based on his pure athleticism.
But Parnell didn’t play offensive tackle—or anywhere else on that side of the ball, in fact.
Parnell was a defensive end and his limited experience at the position, or any other, is the primary reason he was not drafted.
Still, it’s worth noting that Parnell is a very different player than Free, as far as stature goes.
While Free has more weight and a lower center of gravity, Parnell looks more like today’s stereotypical NFL left tackle.
Parnell stands over 6’6” and was a forward in college hoops, which offers an idea of what kind of athlete he is. His reach is far greater than Free’s which does give him some advantages when facing opposing defensive ends that will always be shorter.
But those same ends can be more powerful, and this is what got Parnell into trouble against Cleveland in his first action on the left side.
But Parnell held up better against the Bengals last weekend, and it’s only fair to mention that Dallas offensive output in the fourth quarter came while Free was on the field.
For the remainder of the season, right tackle is a critical position to watch given how close the offseason is, regardless of how Dallas finishes.
The Cowboys have to settle the tackle positions, and it is as simple as that. The two guys they have now have both played each position and both are under contract for future seasons. But a final decision has to be made as to who is going where, and the franchise hopes that Parnell could be the insurance policy for that goal.
If Parnell gets the nod at right tackle, the Cowboys can leave Smith on the left side where he’ll play in the same spot in consecutive seasons for the first time since his days at USC. This takes left tackle likely out of the equation for free agency or early in the draft.
But if Free and Parnell both fail to give the Cowboys confidence moving forward, another major hole emerges for whoever is coaching the Cowboys next season.
Parnell’s time is now and his window, like that of his team, to maximize his success in the NFL is getting smaller, but there's plenty of time left. At 26 years old, it’s the perfect time for Parnell to lock down a starting job and free up the Cowboys to look at other priorities this offseason.