IRVING, Texas -- As the Cowboys focus on the offseason, training camp is still in sight.
Coming off two straight 8-8 seasons and three full seasons removed from the playoffs, the Cowboys have plenty of question marks surrounding them as they prepare for the 2013 season.
As we count down the days to camp, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will take a different question each day that is hovering over this team.
With 69 days until the Cowboys take the field in Oxnard, Calif., today's question centers on the Cowboys' most-discussed offensive lineman:
68) Would A New Contract Change The Perception of Free?
As if enough hasn't already been written about a player who might not even be a Cowboy in another month. But for the purposes of this countdown, let's assume Doug Free reports to training camp with a new, smaller salary.
The Cowboys' right tackle certainly didn't play up to the expectations of someone making $8 million per year in 2012 – there's no denying that. Free was flagged too often, and he contributed to Tony Romo's constant scrambling in the Dallas backfield. His play improved when he was spelled by backup Jermey Parnell late in the season, but that's not exactly what you want to see from a guy worth such a large cap hit.
However: if Free agrees to a pay cut that brings that number down, is there any chance he can regain what he lost? As an $8 million player Free was a disappointment, but he suddenly seems like a decent bargain at $3.5 million or $4 million. Fan expectations rise based on the amount of money you're costing the salary cap, so Free could possibly regain some of his mojo if he's allowed to work without the limelight of a primetime contract. At the very least, it doesn't seem like such a waste to platoon your right tackles if neither of them is costing you a significant amount.
The prospect of signing a free agent replacement for Free doesn't seem overly likely by now. Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston were both released by following the 2012 season – which would be the same case as Free if he's cut. Clabo didn't command much money when he signed with Miami, and Winston is still waiting for a suitor.
The perception that any of the remaining free agents would be an obvious upgrade over the combination of Free and Parnell is probably overblown. The better bet would be to finish the new deal.
Whether fans could get over the $8 million disappointment and accept Free as a solid player at half that price remains to be seen.
Sticking with our numerical journey to training camp, let's take a closer look at the number 68:
- If he's on the team, Free would be entering his seventh year as No. 68, making him the second-longest tenured No. 68 in team history.
- The longest-tenured No. 68 would be Herb Scott, who played all 10 of his NFL seasons from 1975-84 with the Cowboys. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1979, 1980 and 1981.
- The 1968 season saw the Cowboys rip off a fantastic 12-2 record behind the arm of Don Meredith, though they would be defeated, 31-20, by Cleveland in the Eastern Championship Game. The Cowboys trounced the Browns, 52-14, in the same game the year prior. [embedded_ad]
- No. 68 is a fun number for the Cowboys punting game. On Nov. 3, 1968, Dallas punter Ron Widby set the franchise and (at the time) NFL record for longest punt when he booted a kick 84 yards against the Saints. Jets punter Steve O'Neal would shatter the record one year later with an astounding 98-yard punt.
- 1968 was also the season Bob Hayes set a Dallas franchise record for punt return touchdowns in one year, when he housed two different punts. That record has since been tied by six other Cowboys, but never broken.
- Hayes set a playoff record for longest punt return in 1967 against the Browns, when he scampered 68 yards.