Could Doug Free Be The Cowboys' 2013 MVP?

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

It is a strange evolution that the Cowboys offensive lineman has gone through this past year, and it may make him a legitimate candidate for the most valuable player the team has this year - if you look at it the right way.

At one time, Doug Free was one of the most reviled players the Dallas Cowboys had. The offensive tackle was seen as overpaid as he struggled on the field following the big contract he got from Jerry Jones. He was clearly one of the (many) problems on the offensive line in 2011 and 2012. If you had taken a poll at the end of last season on what Dallas player should be cut, Free was certainly a contender to get the nod, and may have been the favorite.

The 2013 season is less that a week away, and now, Free is not only the best right tackle the team has (and arguably the third best linemen on the roster), he is now a swing player at guard, and could be moved over from tackle even if both the presumptive starters, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary, are able to play in the opener. His newfound flexibility, and some characteristics that many may have overlooked, make him one of the most important players on the Cowboys roster.

Yes. I just said that.

It's really a logical extension of something that we have been stating here at BTB for years now: The Dallas Cowboys will only be as successful as their offensive line allows them to be. If Tony Romo does not get the protection he needs, the passing game will suffer as he does not have time to get the ball into the hands of the multiple receiving weapons. If the running backs do not get the holes and lanes they need, the running game will be ineffective, making the team one-dimensional. The Cowboys seemed to have found solutions at tackle and center, but injuries and poor performance still left them with huge questions at guard. Now, Doug Free has stepped up and provided the team with another option there, and done it well enough that the team is apparently comfortable with going into the season relying on him as the backup at both guard positions. He is also the starting right tackle if he is not needed to move inside.

That is a big responsibility for a guy who never played guard before, and has essentially learned it since training camp began. And who also took a 50% pay cut to stay with the team.

It hardly sounds like the same guy we knew from last year.

Of course, that is part of the problem. "We", as fans, really know far less than we sometimes think we do. And the reporters who cover the team are not much better off in getting info from Free. Calvin Watkins admits that Free does a great imitation of Sgt. Shultz from Hogan's Heroes. He also is apparently putting his effort where Dallas needs him to.

"I was slightly surprised," Free said Monday of being asked to play guard. "But I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make this team better. I think I've proven that before and I will prove it again." 

This offseason, Free's status with the team was in doubt until he took a pay cut, going from a $7 million base salary to $3.5 million, which was guaranteed. Free maintained his "I know nothing" response when asked about the financial moves, but you understand him when he says, "I think I've proven that before and I will prove it again," statement about being a team guy.

If a player is almost totally uncommunicative with the press, the head coach approaches press conferences like he is holding national security information and the reporters are all spies, and the owner/general manager often manages to contradict himself twice in one sentence, then it is kind of hard to get a clear view of the man in question by asking any of them. It really stands to reason that the people with the best chance of having an accurate take on Free are his teammates. And someone has to ask the question first.

While the thought of moving Free to defense is a little unnerving, you have to like the attitude. Which is pretty much exactly the opposite of what most of us probably felt about him back when the team was negotiation the change to his contract. But you have to admit that agreeing to give back three and a half millions dollars this season alone is not something about which you want to make a snap decision. In the end, he did what the team needed. Which, according to his coach, is what he always does.

"He's a pro," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Whatever we've asked him to do he just goes and does - play the left side, play the right side, play inside. And he goes to work and he tries to do his best. He's always done that. And I think he's made the environment better because he has such a good attitude about anything we ask him to do."

It just doesn't sound like the malcontented slacker that so many thought he was. Instead, he sounds suspiciously like that RKG thing Garrett is so fond of. Which may explain why the rhetoric over the renegotiated contract was always so calm, and the message was that it was going to get done. They just seemed to know what the answer would be.

Now, they  hope they have a player who can handle both the tackle and guard jobs. That is important for a team that has seen more than its share of inadequate play all along the offensive line the past few years. It does look like the team still hopes that Free stays a backup guard.

But he is now more valuable to the team than he ever was. If he is your backup tackle, the Cowboys may only have to carry seven offensive linemen on the gameday active roster, which is pretty much the minimum. Position flexibility is key. With Free able to slide over, the team could get by with Jermey Parnell and either Phil Costa or David Arkin as backups. That means one extra active spot for players who can help with special teams, something O linemen are ill suited for. And it could free (sorry, not meant to be a pun) one roster spot for something else, since he effectively lets the team carry one less guard on the 53.

Where ever he lines up, if this line can find a way to keep Romo upright and make the running game go, then he has to get credit for his role. In some ways, he is the player almost no one (at least around here) was expecting to be a major part of any solution. It can be argued that, since he is part of fixing three of the five line positions, he is the most valuable lineman right now. That may make him the most valuable player the Cowboys have if the season goes well. And from a purely economic point of view, he costs the team so much less now, and is worth so much more than we thought. He may be the best value the Cowboys have. It's not the traditional way you think of MVP, but in this case, it fits. He brings more value this year, in terms of cap money saved and positions played, than anyone else on the team.

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