OXNARD, Calif. — Poor Doug Free.Amidst a weekly shower of yellow penalty flags and the steady pitter-patter of his quarterback’s retreating feet, offensive tackle Free became an easy scapegoat for the Dallas Cowboys’ 2012 season.He missed blocks. He jumped offsides. No offensive lineman in the NFL drew more than Free’s 15 penalty flags last season. His salary made him a convenient target. After Free’s promising 2011 season, owner Jerry Jones had rewarded him with a four-year, $32-million contract, $17 million of which was guaranteed.But that’s Jerry. It wasn’t the first time that Owner Jones had reasoned that if he paid an unproven young player a Pro Bowl salary maybe the player would get there. Isn’t Jones the one who gave Marion Barber a seven-year, $45-million contract?As Free struggled last season after being moved from left tackle to right tackle, the Cowboys’ running game stalled, quarterback Tony Romo scrambled for elbow room, and the offensive line was singled out for off-season renovations.What a year it must have been for Doug Free.“I would never go that far,” Free said Monday, when asked if he felt the weight of the Cowboys’ world on his shoulders. “The main thing as a player is you’ve got to go out and do your job. If you’re not doing your job, you’re going to hear about it.“Whether it was my fault or not, what people were saying really didn’t matter. It was just a matter of me staying focused on what I have to do and go out and play better.”If the fans’ criticism didn’t get Free’s attention, however, Owner Jones soon did. Squeezed for salary cap space, Jones publicly pondered the possibility of releasing Free — and the $7 million he was owed — and replacing him with a free agent.The two most often mentioned possible replacements were Tyson Clabo of Atlanta and Eric Winston of Kansas City. Neither, it could be argued, were measurably better than Free — or less expensive, for that matter.But Jones needed the cap space. Free was simply a convenient non-marquee Cowboy that he could put the squeeze on. And squeeze he did. With little or no leverage, Free’s choices became (1) accept Jones’ 50 percent salary reduction, or (2) try to match that salary on the open market. Free kept his thoughts to himself and then chose the pay cut.“It was tough,” he said. “But I like it here. I like the people here, especially my teammates. I just want to do my best and make this team better.”If Jones had wanted to replace Free, however, what kept him? He didn’t want to replace Free — he wanted to replace Free’s salary. As the coaches probably told Jerry, Free’s 2012 season had performed an about-face in the final four or five weeks. His grades led the offensive linemen in the final month.Half as expensive as he once was, therefore, Doug Free arrived in training camp this season determined to erase the stigma of 2012.When asked how Free was responding at this camp, head coach Jason Garrett said, “I think it’s a good word — he’s responding.“Doug has played well for us at different times throughout his career, and there were times last year where he didn’t play his best. He’d be the first one to tell you that. “I thought he fought well through some of those ups and downs that he had last year. He’s off to a good start in this training camp.”What the people yelled at him last season, Free said Monday, doesn’t really matter.It’s a new season, a new contract. A fresh start.Doug Free has earned that.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton