Cowboys' offensive line given ultimatum on shoddy play

IRVING -- Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Bill Callahan didn't even try to defend the indefensible.

He came right out and stated the obvious about the horrendous play of the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line the past two weeks against the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They have had too many flags, allowed too many hits on battered quarterback Tony Romo and given up too many tackles for losses to bog down the running game.

"There is no question [we have to get better]," Callahan said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this. We did not play well [against Tampa Bay on Sunday] and we are not playing well right now. We've got to improve. We've got to become a more consistent unit across the board. We are not pleased where we are at. Certainly not our standard."

The frustrating part for the Cowboys is that the failures have been across the board. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free were supposed to be the strength of the unit. Yet, the two have accounted for nine of the team's 12 false-start penalties.

Left tackle Smith leads the NFL with five. Free ranks second in the league with four, including three at Cowboys Stadium last week.

Both have had their issues in protection and run blocking -- though Smith, picked ninth overall 2011, played his best game of the season against the Bucs, Callahan said.

Six-year veteran Free has been the biggest disappointment. You can add two holding penalties to his ledger.

It has been a continuation of a shocking decline in play from him since signing a four-year, $32 million contract extension before the 2011 season after a strong year in 2010, when he was ranked as the fourth best player at his position by Pro Football Focus.

He ranked 44th last year and is 59th so far this year out of 64 players.

Free's struggles in 2012 can be partly blamed on his move back to right tackle from left tackle and a slow transition to the new coaching techniques of the zone blocking system under Callahan. For the first five years of his career, Free worked under former line coach Hudson Houck.

"It needs improvement, definitely," Free said of his play. "I haven't pass-protected well enough. [We] haven't run the ball well enough, and [I] definitely contributed to [that with] what I've done.

"I don't think I've done a good enough job, and we've got to get it fixed. I have to take coaching and keep working the techniques I've been taught and really focus on it."

Right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau has been put on notice that his play must improve or the Cowboys will consider replacing him with veteran backup Derrick Dockery.

Bernadeau was one of two free-agent guards the Cowboys targeted and signed in the off-season. Bernadeau was given $11 million over four years to come over from the Carolina Panthers, while Nate Livings was given $19 million over five to leave the Cincinnati Bengals.

Neither of their former teams attempted to retain them, but the Cowboys liked their bulk after getting run over up the middle last year and felt they could thrive under Callahan.

Livings has been solid, but Bernadeau, who was not a starter in Carolina last season and missed the bulk of training camp because of injuries, has struggled.

"We want more from him," Callahan said. "I've made this point to him."

The Cowboys believe the easiest issue to fix is the pre-snap penalties because it is largely attributed to a lack of cohesion and familiarity with center Ryan Cook.

The Cowboys can't expect to win, nor can Romo expect to stay healthy, if things don't improve.

"We have to do a better job keeping Tony clean," Callahan said. "There is nobody that takes more pride in protecting the passer than this group of guys. Talk is cheap. We have to go out there Monday and show people we got it right."

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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