Who doesn't enjoy trying to guess what the Dallas Cowboys' management and staff is going to do next? I certainly do. This year they have been busy with injuries leading to new holes to fill almost every week. But arguably the biggest issue, and one that has largely not been addressed, is the sporadically terrible play of right tackle Doug Free. Game after game, he has had stretches of bad play that put Tony Romo in dire peril. The failures on Free's part seemed to come early in games, and then he settles down and performs at least adequately for the most part. The coaching staff notes this, talks about how he had technique issues early, and go on to next week hoping he will get it right from the opening kick.
When you keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result . . .
This week, there seems to be some indication that the team may finally be ready to put Free on a short leash, the kind that will jerk him back to the bench if he has another bad start. Bryan Broaddus, trying to decipher some of Jason Garrett's notorious non-communication, feels that this may be the week the team will use the hook on Free if he has a typical bad beginning to things.
I really do believe that Garrett and this offensive staff will have a keen eye on what Free is doing during this game and if they see some problems on the right side, they will be quicker to go with Parnell at that spot.
Part of the problem for the team in dealing with Free was that Jermey Parnell was the only other tackle on the roster. Parnell is still raw, basically being a converted basketball player. Still, there were many (especially if you listen to sports talk radio, as I guiltily admit to) who made the "He can't be any worse" argument. This is always a bit of a risky stance to take, since, as Bill Cosby once remarked, that is when worse does indeed show up. But based on his performance while Tyron Smith was out of the lineup, Parnell may actually be a slightly better option with some upside. Free seems to be in a free fall (pun intended) as far has his ability to handle the position.
Earlier this season, on one of those radio shows I confessed to listening to, Broaddus advanced the theory that the concern for the team is that they do not want to risk ruining Parnell at this stage. Given that Free's issues seem to be mental and technique, not health, the team would not want to have Parnell go through a similar loss of confidence if he were thrown into the fray too early. The supposed risk here would be to create another problem instead of solving the original one.
Now, the team may be taking a second look at Parnell, based on his game experience, and deciding that he is ready to go. It also may want to send an unequivocal message to Free, which benching would certainly do. Broaddus also said that Garrett left the door open for Parnell to get some more work, which would be a message of its own to Free. Another, albeit more subtle one, may be involved in the signing of Darrion Weems to take Costa's place on the roster. Bringing another tackle onto the team seems to hint that the team is ready to start looking at other solutions. Using up a roster spot has to have some purpose. Bringing another tackle in with four games to go and the team needing to win out to try and make the playoffs would seem to reflect a desire to shore up the position and maybe get a head start on the competition at tackle for next season. Just from a logical standpoint, since so far the team has been signing players to address weaknesses as roster spots have opened up, this must be a weakness being addressed.
If Free continues to struggle on the field, I see a definite possibility that he will be benched before the season is over. Actually, based on how things are going, I rather expect it to happen. Hopefully, Free will get his head straight and render this whole discussion moot, but my faith in that is somewhat lacking. And if Parnell is able hold his own, the bench is where Free might finish the season.
If he does make it to the end of the year as a starter, I think he is still going to have to earn his job all over again - and the team is probably going to be very critical in its evaluation of him. One way or another, I think Free is becoming another Roy Williams (the wide receiver). Keeping him would in the long run be more costly to the Cowboys than replacing him, no matter how the dollars add up. If a good tackle is available to Dallas in the early rounds of the draft, or another viable option presents itself, such as Weems or another free agent showing good upside, they may go ahead and bite the bullet on Free and his contract. They have watched him struggle for too long now, and might finally be tired of seeing that same show one more time.