Cowboys counting on Marc Colombo

IRVING, Texas -- It's not his first rodeo, Alex Barron assured the concerned media horde last week. The Dallas Cowboys can only hope it was his last, at least in their uniform, after Barron's holding clinic helped ruin the season opener against the Washington Redskins.

Here comes Marc Colombo to the rescue. Well, maybe.

Colombo returns to practice Wednesday, and if all goes well this week, he'll reclaim his starting job at right tackle for Sunday's home opener against the Chicago Bears. But there are worries about whether Colombo can stay healthy and/or return to his form from 2008, when teammates voted him the Cowboys' offensive MVP. He's turning 32 next month and had two surgeries on his right leg in the last 10 months.

Right tackles get talked about a lot only when things go wrong. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the position has been a subject of intense conversation after their last two games. If Colombo can't get completely well, that could continue to be the case, a potential killer for the Cowboys' playoff aspirations and cause for serious long-term concern.

Colombo rushed back from a broken fibula and torn ankle ligaments, injuries he suffered in a November loss to the Packers, to play in the playoffs. Pretty much playing on one leg, Colombo had his worst performance of his Cowboys tenure, getting dominated by Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards in a lopsided loss.

An Aug. 16 arthroscopic knee surgery sidelined Colombo for the season opener, causing the Cowboys to count on Barron. He responded by showing why the St. Louis Rams were so eager to get rid of their 2005 first-round pick. Barron was called for holding three times, with the grand finale negating what would have been the game-winning touchdown as time expired.

Head coach Wade Phillips can talk all he wants about working with Barron on technique, but the Cowboys can't count on a subpar player who led the NFL in penalties over the last five seasons. The Redskins put a bull's-eye on Barron, making sure Brian Orakpo got matched up with him the whole second half. The Cowboys need Colombo.

There are no questions about Colombo's toughness, determination or work ethic. The Bears gave up on their former first-round pick because of a left knee injury that would have ended most careers, but Colombo battled back to become a pillar of consistency and leader of the offensive line for the Cowboys.

But there are doubts about whether Colombo can continue to be effective as he ages and deals with more injuries.

"You just have to see what happens," Phillips said. "If he comes back the way he was, he'll be fine. He was practicing fine, until he got hurt."

Colombo's preseason performance certainly didn't inspire much confidence. In his last game before his right knee locked up, Colombo allowed two sacks to Oakland rookie Lamarr Houston.

The hope is that the operation to remove five loose particles from that knee will help Colombo's mobility return.

The worst-case scenario is that Colombo either struggles while dragging his right leg or can't play several games. The result would likely be a disappointing season and perhaps a return to a revolving door at right tackle.

That door stopped spinning when Colombo established himself as the starter in 2006. It wasn't nearly as high profile as the Cowboys' quarterback woes between Troy Aikman and Tony Romo, but replacing Erik Williams at right tackle was a painful process.

Six players started at least four games at right tackle in the five seasons between Williams and Colombo. Barron doesn't look so bad when you scan the list of names: Solomon Page, Javiar Collins, Ryan Young, Kurt Vollers, Torrin Tucker and Rob Pettiti.

If Colombo's comeback isn't successful, the Cowboys will have a huge question mark at right tackle again. Barron is a stopgap insurance policy. Maybe 2009 third-round pick Robert Brewster or rookie sixth-rounder Sam Young will develop into a solid starter, but it'd be risky to rely on them so soon. The position will probably rank high among the Cowboys' draft priorities next spring.

Of course, if Colombo's comeback isn't successful, the Cowboys will probably be picking a lot higher than anticipated.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.