Tony Romo (left) and Doug Free (right)
I didn’t bother looking up the actual numbers, but I know that Free was close to leading the league as the most penalized player, in the NFL—not as an offensive lineman, but player.
What exactly happened here is hard to understand, let alone explain. I’m sure that even owner and GM Jerry Jones is scratching his head, wondering how things have gone so awry on the offensive line.
Free hasn’t exactly had a fair shake, even though he did sign that four-year, $32 million contract immediately following the conclusion of the 2011 lockout.
Free’s contract, combined with his level of play over the past two seasons, is a big problem.
But the bigger one is Jones himself.
Only Jones can understand why he decided that right after discovering Free could fill in a right tackle for an injured Marc Colombo in 2009, he approved the decision to move him to left tackle for the following season, an entirely different beast.
Yes, Free played left tackle in college, but I don’t know that the NIU Huskies football program is cranking out too many blue-chip pass protectors for the NFL. This is just the reality of the situation.
Free's play prompted the drafting of Tyron Smith out of USC in the 2011 NFL Draft. Smith exclusively played right tackle for the Trojans—yet he just completed his second season as a pro and has already played a season at both tackle positions.
If you want left tackles, draft them or sign them in free agency. Small schools can produce great players in the NFL, but not very often.
If Free was to start at right tackle in 2013, it would be the first time he’s played successive seasons there. The brief run in 2009 came out of necessity when Colombo went down and the Cowboys still found their way into the playoffs for the first time in well over a decade.
Then the movement started, and it’s just been disaster for Romo ever since.
The records don’t lie.
Since all of this tackle switching, Dallas has lost a head coach and a list of assistants now coaching elsewhere. The Cowboys, during this span, have yet to finish with a winning record and Romo’s injury history has added several sheets to his medical folder.
This is why I am truly shocked by those who even consider blaming Romo for Dallas' failures on offense—and then actually do it.
Yes, Jones probably jumped the gun when spending the money that he did on Free, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost here.
Free deserves continuity just as Smith does—and do you realize that both starting tackles have played both tackle positions in just the last two seasons?
This is nonsense and the general manager is as responsible as anybody else for these decisions. In other words, Free never needed to be moved from the position that the Cowboys thought he could play following the nice audition in 2009.
Not trying to offer “free” passes to anybody, but I think another year of work for both Dallas tackles in the same spot is in order. The contracts involved speak to this likelihood and I think the players involved do too.
Remember that Smith had more than his share of penalties in his first year playing left tackle—which, of course, followed his lone year at right tackle.
It’s a better idea and less of a liability to draft an interior offensive lineman to change the culture inside. There’s a number of guys who can help right away and the Cowboys would be adding players that don’t have to play in as much space as tackles.
This is why I like D.J. Fluker over most linemen the Cowboys could realistically choose with either of their first two selections. He’s essentially insurance for Free if things don’t get better pretty quickly.
No, I don’t think Fluker translates to right tackle in the NFL, but he played the position for the two-time national champions of college football and as a guard. He could be the second coming of 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Larry Allen or even Leonard Davis.
I say this often and I’ll say it again: Size and strength absolutely matter, and improving the interior of the line to give running back DeMarco Murray more space is what makes Free a better tackle.
You’re just not going to find many tackles anywhere that play well while trailing, as Dallas often does, and also when having to drop back into pass protection 50-60 times per game.
Then there’s the possibility that Free is moved inside to guard, an idea that I think might work—but then who plays tackle?
I’d rather keep my tackles and get new guards than the other way around, if possible.
The biggest positive for the Cowboys heading into this season is that they at least have the opportunity to achieve some continuity while also gaining youth and strength for the inside—or perhaps at tackle, depending on how things go.
It might be premature to decide Free can’t play football anymore. It’s hard to see him being released after having been juggled around so much and considering his contract.
But don’t doubt that Dallas will be looking long and hard at all offensive line opportunities in the upcoming draft.