COMMENTARY | Offensive tackle Doug Free has been a fan favorite over the years. As in a fan favorite player to blame when things get sloppy on the offensive side of the ball.
And they're not wrong. Free was atrocious last season. He looked lost and weak and was completely dominated by almost every lineman or linebacker that challenged him. Sure, he had his moments when he almost earned his pay, which at the time was a cap hit of $4.2 million. But it eventually got so bad he lost playing to time to Jermey Parnell.
When it was all said and done, Free ranked 66th out of the 80 graded tackles by Pro Football Focus. He was credited with allowing six sacks and 41 quarterback hurries. On top of that, he was the most penalized player in the league last year with 15, eight of which were false starts.
In short, Free was the one of the worst offensive lineman in the league, one the most overpaid players in the league, and probably the worst overall player on the team. He was so bad that it came down to either taking a pay cut or taking a pink slip.
As you know, Free took a pay cut and is still on the team. And not only is he the starting right tackle, something he had to earn in preseason, he's playing at a level that we haven't seen from him since his breakout 2010 season.
Through the first two weeks PFF has him ranked as the seventh best offensive tackle in the league. For perspective, Tyron Smith ranks 26th out of a total of 68. Free has been credited with allowing only one sack and four quarterback hurries. That's pretty good considering he's lined up against pass rushing specialists such as Justin Tuck (who looked to be back to his old self in Week 1) and Justin Houston.
Even better, Free has not drawn a single flag. No false starts. No holding. He looks aware, he looks strong. He looks like the right tackle the Cowboys hoped would more than justify his $17 million in guaranteed money.
This is a small sample size, of course. In the grand scheme of things, two games barely scratch the surface in a league where week-to-week consistency is the difference between wins and losses. But what's important here is how Free's play could translate to more wins than losses.
Confidence is a key element in designing and executing a game plan. If Jason Garrett and Tony Romo have confidence that their right tackle is going to give them the kind of run blocking and pass protection they need, then they can implement their system with a broader playbook. Things like play action and screen passes can become a bigger part of the picture.
Last year the Cowboys called play action on only 11% of plays. That was the league worst. But it makes sense when you consider the situation. In order to run play action, you have to have protection. The Cowboys allowed more quarterback pressure than 27 other teams last year. In other words, Romo didn't have enough time to fake a handoff and allow his receivers to complete their routes.
Disguising the play is critical. Without play action as a realistic and reliable option, it's easy for teams to play the run when they see run, and play the pass when they see pass. The Cowboys ultimately showed their hand pre snap in a lot of games last year. Consistent pass protection and run blocking will allow Bill Callahan to dial up some deceptiveness and keep defenses honest.
The Cowboys are 1-1 and there are some legitimate concerns that this offense isn't pulling their weight. But at least it's nice to see the quarterback have a little time to operate in the pocket. It's not all on Doug Free, but if he can continue on his current pace, Romo will have more time to find his receivers, DeMarco Murray will have more room to run, and this team has a realistic chance of finishing above .500 for the first time in four years.
Those are all big ifs, of course. A lot has to go right in order for this team to have success. For now the Cowboys can take refuge in the fact they have a right tackle instead of a turnstile.
Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football. Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema.
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