It often is said that regardless of the talent at the skill positions, no offense can be effective without a solid offensive line. For years, the Dallas Cowboys have had a solid line of big, veteran blockers with the versatility to handle speed rushers and maul powerful interior linemen.
But in recent years, it became clear that the offensive line was becoming an area of concern. Guard Leonard Davis was not always the dominant blocker he was when he arrived in Dallas, while tackle Marc Colombo, tough as he is, showed signs of breaking down physically, and the backup line was full of question marks in the form of unproven youngsters. Dallas drafted two offensive linemen in April, including Colombo's heir apparent in first-rounder Tyron Smith, and Davis and Colombo were cut in the last week.
But not all of the veterans on the offensive line were sent packing. Guard Kyle Kosier and left tackle Doug Free — who had been labeled the team's top free agent priority — were re-signed, and will join center Andre Gurode, meaning the Cowboys will have three-fifths of their starting offensive line from last year back in 2011.
"It is good — it's good to see those guys," head coach Jason Garrett said Saturday when asked about how reassuring it was to see Free and Kosier back on the field at the Alamodome, even though NFL rules stipulate that they can not take part in practice until the end of next week. "They've been a big part of what we've been doing the last few years, and (I am) excited to get those guys signed up and ready to play.
"It's a little frustrating, to be honest with you, to have those guys signed and having them watching at this point. Hopefully the league can get that sorted out. Right now, it's scheduled for those guys not to be able to practice until August 4. Each day in training camp is critical. There's a lot of reps, there's a lot of information that gets passed along and processed to the players, and when you miss those days, it's valuable time. (But) those guys are veterans. They have been in our system, so they are not learning as much as a younger guy, but still, this is a valuable time for us, so hopefully we can get it worked out with those guys and free agents all over the league can start practicing football."
A year ago, Free was the biggest question mark on the line, an unproven youngster who was asked to fill the enormous void left by the departure of longtime starting left tackle Flozell Adams. But Free turned out to be a much better player than most realized; at times, he was the best lineman on the entire team. In the course of one season, Free had gone from being just another mid-round draftee (he was selected in the fourth round of the 2007 draft) to a vital cog in the Dallas offense. Team officials openly sweated about the idea of losing him free agency, a concern that almost became a reality when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a serious push for him before he eventually re-signed with Dallas.
"I didn't really think about it much," Free said when asked about the transition from being an fairly anonymous backup to someone viewed as an integral part of the team's offensive plan. "I knew my position on the football team — I play left tackle. I really didn't worry about whether I was going to be a high-profile guy or not. I just did my job.
"One of the great things for Doug Free over the course of his career has been lining up every day and trying to block No. 94 (DeMarcus Ware)," Garrett said, "and then when he's not trying to block number 94, he's trying to block number 93 (Anthony Spencer). So we've seen him on the right side and the left side a lot as coaches. You see these guys in practice; can they carry (that performance) to the game? Particularly at a position as significant as left tackle, where the great rushers of this league line up over and over and over again. We felt great about how Doug had developed. He got an opportunity to play and took full advantage of it. There was no real anxiety. There was some excitement to see how he was going to play, but we felt good about it and we felt confident and I think he responded well to the challenge."
Free said he was glad to be back with the Cowboys — "I had a fairly good idea," he said, "but you never really know, when it comes down to it, if its all going to work out in the end" — but admitted that the league rule preventing him from suiting up with his teammates again is frustrating.
"It's pretty hard," he said. "It definitely gets you back to the days when you didn't start. Right now I'm just trying to help the younger guys. I'm trying to get everybody as good as they can get. The better everybody is, the better the team is."
Offensive line coach Hudson Houck said that while the league preventing the newly signed Free and Kosier from joining the drills immediately might interrupt the continuity of the offensive line's work, he is not concerned about the veterans' ability to working their way back into the lineup.
"I think they'll be fine," Houck said. "There's still plenty of time. They know what to do and they know how to do it — it's just a matter now of conditioning. They can do the conditioning and they can ride the bike and do all of that stuff. They can lift and they can do all of that stuff basically on their own without any help. They know what to do. They're two veteran guys, so I don't see it as a problem."
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