Fans this off season had been calling loudly for the Cowboys to part ways with troubled offensive tackle Doug Free – me included. Instead, Dallas was able to get Free to agree to take a pay cut to stay with the team – for now.
He was set to be the highest paid right tackle in the game in 2013 with a base salary of $7 million followed by an increase to $8 million in 2014. His level of play however made him easily the most overpaid right tackle in the league. Instead of becoming a likely June 1 cut, Free agreed to a base salary of $3.5 million in each of the next two years. But, is that still too much? Tyson Clabo – courted by the Cowboys as a potential free agent replacement for Free – signed recently with the Dolphins for the same $3.5 million. Who got a better value for the money?
To try and answer that question, it’s helpful at this point to review the history of Doug Free.
He played college football at Northern Illinois University, a Division 1 school in the MAC. He was drafted by the Cowboys in the 4th round in 2007 (He and Anthony Spencer are the only players still on the team of the 8 draft picks the Cowboys had that year). But, he played in only one game that year – a late season appearance against the Redskins where he surrendered one sack but was considered to have played well enough. He suffered a back injury during the off season that kept him on IR for the entire 2008 season.
In 2009, Free started 7 games at right tackle after Marc Columbo broke his leg and ended his season on November 15th against the Green Bay Packers. Free finished the season as the starting right tackle. He played well enough that season to give the Cowboys the confidence to cut starting left tackle Flozell Adams in the off season and install Free as their new left tackle for the 2010 season – switching him from the right side of the line.
In 2010, he played well enough (on a team that finished 6-10) to earn, at least in the eyes of Jerry Jones and his son “Tommy Boy”, a lucrative, 4-year $32 million contract extension with $17 million guaranteed. One decent season and he was rewarded like a top-tier left tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, Free was ranked as the 9th best tackle in the NFL in 2010.
Two things happened in 2011 that were significant for Free. First, the Cowboys drafted tackle Tyron Smith with the 9th overall pick in the draft. With Free’s big contract signed in the off season, Smith was installed at the right tackle position. Secondly, the Cowboys chose to cut most of their veteran starters – Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, and Marc Columbo – in an effort to get younger (and cheaper). Free’s level of play with this ragtag group of new players dropped off precipitously – he dropped to the 39th best tackle in the league per PFF but was still being paid like an elite tackle. He gave up 10 sacks – 6 alone in the critical December stretch – and it would have been more if Tony Romo were not so adept at escaping the rush at times. It set off alarm bells for all Cowboys fans.
In 2012, the Cowboys did more tinkering. They signed Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings as free agent guards. Due to injury, they traded for Ryan Cook for depth at center and he ended up being the starter one series into the season when Phil Costa reinjured his back. At one point, Bernadeau had to play center because no one else was available that could. In an effort to figure out what happened to Doug Free, the team also decided to switch Free and Tyron Smith from right to left tackle. Although his best season to date in the NFL had been at left tackle, it was thought that Smith was a more natural left tackle and that Free would face fewer premier pass rushers on the right side.
The other thing the Cowboys did prior to the 2012 season was replace offensive line coach Hudson Houck with Bill Callahan – former head coach of the Oakland Raiders and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Callahan, from everything I’ve read and heard, is supposed to be an excellent coach. The only way to truly judge that in my opinion is results. The results after one season don’t indicate much excellence. The offensive line as a group struggled mightily to pick up Callahan’s different approach to line play. To be fair, his group was hit with a lot of injuries and some of the talent he was given is suspect, but isn’t that what makes a good coach? Making the best of what he has to play with and overcoming all the adversity? So far, Callahan has not impressed me and the assertion that him calling plays or taking more of the OC role is the cure all for the Cowboys in 2013 is a reach I think. I’ve talked to some people that know a lot about college football and were familiar with Callahan’s time at Nebraska who felt his hiring by the Cowboys was a huge mistake. Time will tell.
Doug Free, now a veteran player, struggled as much as any player in 2012 under Callahan’s new system. Late in the season, the general consensus was that his play improved noticeably once he shared snaps with backup tackle Jermey Parnell. A “tackle by committee” approach can work I guess – although I don’t see many other teams doing that with success – but you can’t pay one of those players like a premier starting tackle and get a part-time player. Over the last three games of the 2012 season, Free was in the game for only a little over 60% of the offensive snaps. Overall, he actually got worse than the bad 2011 season surrendering 6 sacks and dropping to the 40th best tackle in the league.
Now that Free has agreed to a pay cut and will be on the team for 2013, Cowboy fans have to hope that another year under Callahan and with potentially better talent surrounding him – assuming rookie center Travis Frederick can come in and play like a starting center – Free will bounce back. No doubt the entire line has to play better as a unit – that “rising tide will lift all boats”, including Doug Free’s life raft. Developing a running game will help as well. In many ways, Doug Free’s future is in the hands of Bill Callahan. Will he prove to be the amazing coach everyone says he is? Only time will tell. Go Cowboys!