Doug Free tries out new position at guard for Cowboys

ARLINGTON, Texas — Having failed so miserably at right tackle that he had to take a pay cut to remain with the Cowboys, Doug Free tried out a new position Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals. And for a guy who hadn’t played guard at any level of his football career, Free actually flirted with competence.

It remains to be seen whether the Cowboys will open the regular-season with this revamped line because they’re still hoping Ron Leary (knee) will return in time to start at left guard. But Free certainly gave the team something to ponder. In reality, they’ve been thinking about making this move for a long time. The signings of Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings during the 2012 free-agency period have not worked due to injuries and poor play. Free told a large group of reporters after the game that he wouldn’t talk until he’d watched film of Saturday’s game. Fortunately, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has such a keen eye that he’s not beholden to time-consuming film study.

“If by chance, [Free] should grade good, if he’s acceptable, that would be impressive,” said Jones. “I think he did better than he should’ve done.”

Before this move can become permanent, the Cowboys have to feel comfortable with Jermey Parnell as the starting right tackle. Parnell played reasonably well last season in a platoon role with Free, but he’s just returning from a hamstring injury he suffered early in training camp. Free and Parnell were much better in pass protection than in the running game. The Cowboys only averaged 2.5 yards on 18 carries in the first half. In fact, head coach Jason Garrett pulled starting running back DeMarco Murray soon after he fumbled at his own 9-yard line on the second possession of the game. It was a good move for a coach who wanted to send his team a message about turnovers.

Free did flash some of the speed and athleticism that earned him such a lucrative contract before the  2011 season. On a running play in the second quarter, he got to the second level and drove Bengals starting linebacker Vontaze Burfict at least 10 yards downfield. Free is by far the fastest offensive linemen for the Cowboys, which should bode well when he pulls on running plays.

“We don’t know until we look at the tape, but he’s been doing a really good job there and he’s a really smart player,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said of Free. “Not everybody can make that adjustment like that, especially not really in one week. It’s a testament to Doug’s ability to play multiple positions. The flexibility that gives us sometimes, it’s a really, really big deal, a guy that can do multiple positions. I think he did a real good job. That’s a good front we played against tonight. Those guys, to do what they did I thought was pretty darn good.”

This is actually a great opportunity for Free to change the narrative of his career. If he can learn a new position on the fly, it would go a long way in making up for how badly he regressed at right tackle. One longtime NFL scout who has followed Free since college offered this evaluation:

“The feet are not an issue for him, but facing all that power will be,” he said. “The heavy bodies are right over you instead of having some space. Leverage and playing under guy’s pads would be the other issue. But he’s probably going to look good as a puller.”

Rookie center Travis Frederick and Free did a great job against a stunt late in the first half to allow Romo to connect with Miles Austin for a 12-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry tried to attack the middle of the line, but Frederick did a great job picking him up. The Cowboys won’t have a lot of continuity along the line heading into the Giants game. But at least they seem to be close to identifying their five best players up front.

I still don’t understand why the Cowboys didn’t give Free some reps at guard during training camp if it’s something they’d been thinking about. They are putting an enormous amount of pressure on a player that seemed to lose his confidence last season.

If he can succeed at a new position, he’ll win the respect of his coaches and teammates. Is three weeks enough time for a player to make such a significant change?

We’re about to find out.