IRVING, Texas – It is a gigantic game of Chicken. It is also a gigantic game of Musical Chairs.
And the two games involve gigantic sums of money and, because it’s all about offensive tackles, it involves gigantic men, too.
And beleaguered Dallas Cowboys tackle Doug Free is now a player in the game of Musical-Chair Chicken.
A source close to Free tells me the veteran “anticipates not being with the Cowboys” as of June 1 – an indication he is presently unwilling to accept Dallas’ proposal that would substantially reduce his $7 million salary and allow him to likely retain his job starting at right tackle.
June 1 is the day Dallas can release Free and suffer the least amount of cap damage, as his $10-million impact will be allowed to be spread over two seasons. It is clear Dallas prefers to retain Free (but at its desired price). That’s not just a matter of correcting an overpayment on him; it’s also a matter of freeing up cap space that can be used, for instance, to lock up linebacker Sean Lee with a rich extension.
We think that (Jermey) Parnell and Free … put us in great shape at our tackles,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said this week, noting the two players who rotated at right tackle at the end of last season. “We have a way here that Doug could flourish …”
That “way” is to cease overpaying him.
If Free will not budge?
That’s why this is a game of Musical-Chair Chicken.
The Cowboys’ top-rated free-agent tackle is, by far, ex-Falcons stalwart Tyson Clabo. One source maybe optimistically says Clabo might settle for a one-year deal worth around $4 million. But his leverage in this situation figures to earn him more – somewhere.
Other veteran tackles on the market include Eric Winston (who is on-record as saying he’d sign for one year and $3 mil), Winston Justice and, for a moment there, Bryant McKinnie (who today re-upped with Baltimore). For weeks there have been errant reports regarding Dallas “offering” these players. Truth is, there has been “touching-base” contact in large part because, the Cowboys personnel department tells me, none of those guys are major upgrades over Free.
The cogs are about to turn. Dallas is trying to play hardball with Free. And Free’s attitude suggests he’s responding in kind.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are working to out-wait, if not out-bid, the competition. The competition – led by the Dolphins — is doing the same with Dallas. There are only so many tackle jobs and there are only so many tackles. (In theory: Free doesn’t budge. The Dolphins win Clabo. The Cowboys then act Winston. Free is left out in the cold.)
Cowboys officials say on the record that they don’t want to create an artificial deadline here for Free. But chairs are about to be occupied, and it’s been suggested to me that Free will be made to know that Dallas wants a response before Monday.
“We want him back,” Dallas exec Stephen Jones said of Free. “We’d love to have him here. I think he’d love to be here. Now the question is, it’s got to work for him and it’s got to work for us. I have all the respect in the world for Doug. He works his ass off.”
And right now, he’s trying to work the game of Musical-Chair Chicken.