Don't blame front office for Doug Free debacle

There’s no denying that Doug Free’s four-year, $32 million contract has been dreadful for the Cowboys.

Based on his performance the last two seasons, Free would be overpaid if he takes the massive pay cut the Cowboys have proposed. As it is, he’s the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL, which wouldn’t be such a big problem if he wasn’t also one of the least effective last season.

But the Cowboys’ front office isn’t at fault for the Free deal. The Cowboys deserve criticism for a lot of overly generous contracts they’ve given out in recent years, but Free’s deal doesn’t fall in that category.

No reasonable mind questioned the wisdom of locking Free up after the lockout ended in 2011. They really didn’t have much choice. He was a 27-year-old free agent coming off a terrific year in his first season as the starting left tackle. If the Cowboys didn’t give him legitimate left tackle money, the Philadelphia Eagles or Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have.

At the time, it appeared that the offensive tackles would be a strength for the Cowboys for years to come. They had just invested the ninth overall pick in Tyron Smith to replace Marc Colombo at right tackle and maybe make the transition to the left side after Free’s fresh deal expired.

How could the Cowboys have possibly projected Free to regress so drastically during what should have been the prime of his career?

Free went from being Pro Football Focus’ fourth-ranked offensive tackle in 2010 to No. 44 in 2011, resulting in Smith’s move to Tony Romo’s blind side being rushed. As a right tackle in 2012, Free fell all the way down to No. 66.

You can come up with all kinds of theories about what has caused Free’s career to go in reverse. Coaching can’t be solely blamed, however. He took several steps back under Hudson Houck and got worse under Bill Callahan.

The Cowboys’ problem now is that Free has some leverage despite his poor performance since signing the deal. That’s partially because the deal was restructured to free up some money for the Cowboys’ shopping spree last offseason. As a result, the Cowboys wouldn’t gain any cap space by cutting Free now and would create $7 million in dead money if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut.

Plus, the Cowboys don’t have a replacement plan in place. Jerry Jones can pump up Jermey Parnell until he’s blue in the face, but if the Cowboys were that confident in the former Ole Miss basketball player, Free would have spent most of last season watching from the sideline.

The best upgrade option, Tyson Clabo, went off the market when Miami signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, a stark reminder of just how much Free is overpaid. For whatever reason, the Cowboys apparently aren’t so enamored with Eric Winston, a cap casualty in Houston and Kansas City the last two offseasons.

So the Free contract saga drags on. It’s a mess, but it’d be hindsight to hammer the Cowboys’ front office for this one.