Doug Free says he is happy.
For a player who says little to begin with, who had his pay cut in half, who has no promises about his starting job at right tackle, that’s actually saying a lot.
“I’m happy, yeah,” he told reporters last week at Valley Ranch. “Got to be. Got to stay positive and keep working hard.”
That’s at least what the Cowboys hope they get for their $3.5 million this year, half the amount they paid to Free last year in a season in which he appeared to be the weak link in what was already a struggling offensive line.
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Free’s problems in moving back to the right side, and in incorporating the new techniques of offensive line coach Bill Callahan, made the Cowboys rethink their commitment to the veteran tackle as he entered a year that would pay him $7 million. They basically told him: Restructure and take less or we will release you come June 1.
The tackle market didn’t shake out in Free’s favor, and he and the team agreed to a new two-year deal.
“You never know exactly what’s going to happen until it happens, so it was kind of a waiting game and a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Free said. “Just had to be strong, keep working hard, improve myself, no matter what happened.
“I think both sides got what they wanted out of it. I’m just going to do my best and work hard.”
Free said he’s past the business part of the off-season.
“I don’t want to look at the business part or the money part,” he said. “I just like playing football, and that’s what I like to do.”
If it’s time to play football, it’s time to help Free play it better. Callahan said he and Free have spent much more time this year breaking down the pass rushers Free has seen and will see, improving the angles he takes in pass protection and in focusing better on every play.
“I think he’s smarter about his angles. He’s more aware of his angles and his footwork,” Callahan said. “We’ve studied a great deal of rushers on film and what they’ve done and the type of moves they’ve given to him and that he’s seen. So we’ve done a considerable study of all the repertoire of things that have broken down his game. We’ve also shown him some of the highlights and some of the positives that he’s done, too, because he’s done a lot of great things.”
Not many of those great things happened last year. Free had a team- and career-high 13 penalties — eight false starts and five holds, both also career highs, and seven sacks allowed (second most in his career).
Over the final four games, the Cowboys made Free accountable by giving backup Jermey Parnell some of his snaps.
It worked. While Free and Parnell alternated series in the Cincinnati game, Free’s performance improved enough that he earned himself the majority of the snaps after that.
“I think any time you get challenged by something one way or another, you’re either going to get stronger and play better or get weaker and play worse,” Free said. “I think last year, the competition definitely improved my game and kind of helped me focus.”
Head coach Jason Garrett would like to see Free draw on the experience of each of the offensive line coaches he has had with the Cowboys, not only Callahan.
“Tony Sparano was here Doug’s first year, and then Hudson Houck, one of the all-time greats,” Garrett said. “When you get a chance to be around these guys who are at the top of their field and have been for a long time, you’re going to learn a lot of things. And sometimes they’re different things. But I think as a player, you have to kind of make sure you take in the things that you can benefit from. Doug’s certainly done that.”
Last year, Garrett said he would like to see Free play with more “bite,” and he repeated that last week.
“I think, more than anything, he’s trying to be more physical with the upper part of his body, using his hands,” Garrett said. “And I think he’s benefited from that.”
Free said the combination of film, technique and focus is making a difference, but it also comes down to a fundamental for all offensive linemen — communication.
“One of the main things we’ve got to do is just communicate as a group, play better as a group, learn each other even more,” Free said. “Having guys play together longer always works out better.”
Maybe that was part of the reason the Cowboys would have rather been with Free than without him.
“Obviously, there’s some mistakes that we’re working hard to improve, but he does have talent,” Callahan said. “He’s a good foot athlete. He’s a smart guy. He’s a strong guy. If we can just minimize some of those errors and help him out a little bit better as a coaching staff, I think we’ll be a better offensive unit all the way around.”
Who wouldn’t be happy about that?