The Cowboys offensive line struggled in 2012.
To some this is a statement of fact. To others, it's a colossal understatement. While everyone agrees the offensive line must play better in 2013, some think it will be the cause of Dallas' inevitable mediocrity if several new starters are not found.
At the peak of this mountainous debate is Doug Free. The former 4th round standout has now struggled with inconsistencies for two years and is scheduled to be greatly overpaid for his services. So the primary topics of debate aren't centered on whether Free will finish out his big contract in Dallas, it's whether he will even survive another year on the roster. There are several valid points on both sides of the argument, but usually the conversation ignores the giant elephant in the room. Which Doug Free are we talking about?
Those that are willing to create cap space in '13 and suffer dead money in '14 are most often those that believe Free is not a legitimate starter in the NFL, or easily replaceable. If anyone brings up the idea of Free playing well in ‘13, they are often described as delusional or kool-aid drinking optimists; sometimes even salvation slinging clergymen. The debate over how much cap hit Free should have on the Cowboys '14 accounting books is usually the battle-line for the debates, so let's just clear it up real quick and then get on to examining that elephant.
If designated a June 1st cut, Free will have about a 3mil cap hit for '13 and about 7mil in '14. That means the Cowboys would "create" 7mil in cap space in '13 (7mil less than it currently has tagged), but they will still have to keep 7mil for Free on the books in '14. If the Cowboys need this cap space to sign rookies in '13 because Tony Romo does not work out a new deal, then most can understand the need. However, Tyron Smith and Jeremy Parnell are suddenly the only tackles on the roster, and there is a big chunk of dead money to consider in '14. Personally, I like Parnell's potential but would not like to depend on him to start at right tackle AND require two new backups on the team. Rolling with three tackles in '12 was a risk, even though all three had been on the team and could be considered swing tackles. To do it with a first time starter and a new signing is even scarier.
On the flip side, the Cowboys could retain Free's services in '13 (even without him accepting a paycut). While it does not create any cap space in '13, his '14 cap hit would be the same as if he's cut after the '13 season (7mil - the remainder of his pro-rated bonus). So there is no difference in future cap hits between cutting Free (June 1st) in '13 and cutting him in '14. So there real question remains, is it worth having Free on the roster and not creating cap space in '13?
Again, this debate usually ignores the elephant in the room. Creating cap space is always good. Cutting overpaid players is always a good sign of proper management. These are the primary reasons to cut Free in '13. Even if the cap space isn't used, it can be rolled over to '14 to balance out the dead money. So why not cut Free?
Well, which Doug Free are we talking about? If you truly believe Free is the worst RT in the league and wouldn't be able to find a starting job, then the reason for cutting him seems pretty clear. However, what if Free is not only more experienced than Parnell, but also better? It would mean that you don't create a new hole on the roster (need for starting RT), nor does the OT depth get cut to just two deep.
So the real question remains, is keeping Free as a starter to compete with Parnell (or draft pick) better than having Parnell and a draft pick competing for starting RT? Likely one reason the Cowboys have not cut Free is that they are waiting to see what the tackle depth chart looks like after the draft. If you can replace Free with a rookie that will cost nearly one-tenth the price and prove to be a reliable starter, the answer seems simple. If you think Parnell as a starter is less of a risk than Free as a starter, the answer is simple. If you think Parnell has more upside in '13 than Free, the answer is simple.
However, what if you think Free is still your best option in '13?
Well, you may be called delusional. But you may also be right. The Cowboys o-line played much better to end the season than when it began. Most fans have bad images burned into their memories and rarely let them be overruled. Most Cowboys fans will tell you the Cowboys oline was awful. Few will mention the team actually ranked 15th in sacks allowed. The fact that the 49ers and Ravens (the Super Bowl teams) allowed more sacks during the '12 season than the Cowboys will never be discussed. Usually, Romo is attributed for such a difference. However, few even think to consider that not only did the Cowboys rank in the middle of the pack in sacks allowed, they also attempted far more passes than most of the league.
To give you an idea, the Cowboys had 658 passing attempts and allowed 36 sacks. That is a PA/Sack ration of about 18.3. The Cowboys allowed one sack every 18.3 passing attempts.
49ers - 436 passing attempts and 41 sacks...10.6 ratio
Ravens - 560 passing attempts and 38 sacks...14.7 ratio
Many may want to attribute this difference to Romo, but did he really manage to avoid a sack every other pass attempt to create this drastic difference?
But this is a debate for another place and time. Whether the Cowboys pass blocking was as atrocious as some think, it won't prove whether Free is in a free-fall slide, trending as a worse player over the past two seasons with no hope of recovery. Personally, I think there are plenty of reasons to believe Free can improve his consistency and be a solid tackle for the Cowboys in '13. Partly because there will be some more stability for him. In the past few years, Free has switched from RT to LT, and back again. He has gotten a new oline coach, and has had to play alongside a new center and guard (both of which were working through their own issues during the Week 1 matchup in '12).
However, I think the biggest reason to believe Free will play better than a rookie or Parnell in '13 is to simply watch how he ended the season. If you do not have the ability to re-watch the games in their entirety and concentrate on Free's performance, you can do a very brief study.
NFL Highlights from the final weeks of the season:
Against the Bengals, Free had already started to show improvement in his ability to fight off the bull rush (the weakest part of his game).
Even though he was still splitting time with Parnell, Free continued to display more consistency and provide solid blocking.
In this TD run versus Pittsburgh, Free chips the defender Witten is blocking (helping him turn the rusher to the outside) and does a great job on the 2nd level with his block to seal the defenders from the run. While the TD didn't go to his side, it seems it would have been just as effective...and he helped keep the backside pursuit away from the play.
In the NFL highlights versus the Saints, Free's return to consistent pass blocking was on display. This blitz recognition and smooth kickstep is perfect example of what happens when mind, body, and technique work in unison.
In this TD versus the Saints, Free is in great position and stuffs the pass rush, and a chip from Murray completely takes out the defender.
Even when he didn't win this matchup as cleanly as you would like, Free managed to keep the defender from getting in front of Romo. This was the closest he came to allowing a sack that day (and didn't allow any in the final weeks of the season).
Against the Redskins, people often forget the oline was providing ample time when the Skins weren't blitzing six or more. The most vivid example was the 8 second TD pass to Witten, for which Cowboys fans should give a lot of credit to Free. No lineman is asked or expected to maintain a block this long, and Free stuffs the first, second, and even third and fourth efforts of the rusher.
And in this TD pass against the Skins, Free doesn't even give up an inch on the quick fade route throw, again showing better ability against the bull rush.
Now, these clips may be annoying to watch due to the same ad before each one, and they also aren't a complete film study of Free. But clearly, the demise of Free's skills has been exaggerated. Even though these are all clips of successful plays, most of the oline did not have as successful blocks as Free in each play. Personally, I think he provides the most reliable starter at RT for '13, and even the most upside.
While I like Parnell's potential, I do not think he will be as good as Free in'13. Here are his clips from the highlights during that same time. While he pass protects on these two touchdowns, here and here, some might say the plays were successful despite Parnell's rusher eventually pressuring Romo and nearly deflecting the throws.
In this goal-line rushing TD versus the Bengals, Parnell doesn't get low enough and get's pushed back. The Cowboys were lucky the run didn't go in his direction...or Garrett remembered Parnell's previous failings on the goal line as the third tackle earlier in the season.
Again, I think Doug Free is the most reliable option for the Cowboys at RT in '13. Not only is he a proven starter, but there are legitimate reasons to expect he will have more consistent play and perform as well as he did to end the '12 season. I do not think there is proof in believing his skills are in decline and that he isn't a viable starter. He will be over-paid compared to others at his position...but that is why the conversation is currently about keeping him one more year instead of cutting him as a June 1st designation.