Injuries have already reared their ugly heads at the Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, and they have been particularly troublesome on the offensive line. Nate Livings, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Ronald Leary, and Jermey Parnell have all been nicked up to some degree, putting the team behind on trying to come up with more effective protection for Tony Romo and better blocking to bolster an anemic running game.
Contrary to the expectations of many, one bright spot has emerged early in the camp. Doug Free, the much-maligned right tackle, has been getting good reviews. Going into camp, many openly wished that Parnell would step up and take the starting job away from him, but Parnell has seemed to regress some. While this is not a good thing since he was all the depth the team had as swing tackle (and hopefully this may be more due to him jumping on the tweaked hamstring bandwagon and he will recover), it has been offset to some degree by the improvement in Free's game.
In his recent post of camp observations, BTB's big boss Dave Halprin mentioned how both our man at camp, rabblerousr, and DallasCowboys.com's Bryan Broaddus have taken notice. Here is the full writeup Broaddus had.
Another player who is off to a nice start in camp is
Doug Free. In the first day of pads, I thought he did a nice job of showing up and handling the position with some nice technique. In just watching him play, you can see that his confidence level is much better as well. With each rep, he has been on point with how his hands and feet have to work together. His sets have put him in positions where he looks stable and solid.
I have yet to see the problems he has struggled with when a defender goes from speed to power on him. He is playing stronger at the point and when he has to sit down on a rusher, he has been able to do so without giving much ground.
In the running game, he has shown the ability to adjust in this zone scheme with the front side reach and backside cut off. When the ball has been run to his side, he is not late or struggling with his technique.
He has played with good quickness and has been able to finish his blocks or tie up his man. Still plenty of practices to go for Free, but so far he is heading in the right direction.
This would indicate that Free is, as Jason Garrett would say, getting his . . . uh, "butt" coached. His problems last year seem to have come from a loss of proper technique. In May, KD Drummond posted an interview with Cowboys great Rayfield Wright, and that was the diagnosis the Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame right tackle had.
"Now, Doug Free started out playing really good football but sometimes things happen to players that cause them to... how would you put it... that cause them to decrease in their performance and in their technique and abilities.
"When I look at Free, I look at his foot work, because for an offensive lineman footwork is the most important thing that could happen."
While it is not a good thing for a player to lose his technique, it is something that can be fixed with good coaching. It is still very early in camp, but it does look like Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack may have found the issue and come up with the solution.
This is something that may wind up getting lost among all the other storylines developing in camp, but it might be one of the most important developments for the success of the Cowboys. Just a few days ago, there was concern about the Cowboys only having one established, reliable offensive lineman, LT Tyron Smith. The interior of the line is still very much in question, with Kevin Kowalski and David Arkin pressed into playing guard with the ones while flanking rookie Travis Frederick, but if both the tackle positions can be nailed down, that will greatly reduce the questions that have to be answered. Last year, the Cowboys rotated Free and Parnell late in the season and often had to send help for Free in pass protection. If he is able to handle this on his own, it will mean Romo can focus more on adjusting to handle middle pressure, and the running back can also focus on shoring up that aspect of the pocket. Add the way he has been handling his assignments in the run game, and now the Cowboys may have 40% of the offensive line settled. Which sure beats 20%.
Now the coaches can focus on getting the interior of the line working. With a rookie who is expected to start somewhere inside and players that will be coming back as their injuries (hopefully) clear up, there is certainly enough to keep them busy without having to spend excessive time with Free. If he can continue to show he has recovered the form that led the Cowboys to make him a starter, then he will go from a question mark to a plus for the team. Ideally, he will continue to refine his technique - just because the coaches don't have to focus as much on him, he is not going to go uncoached. This is, after all, Jason Garrett's Cowboys. So far, the decision to retain Free, at a reduced rate, is looking good, and there is some reason for optimism about the right tackle. And isn't that a nice change?