IRVING, Texas – It's looking increasingly unlikely that Doug Free will be healthy in time for the Cowboys' divisional round game against Green Bay on Sunday. In Free' place, backup tackle Jermey Parnell would make his seventh start of the season.
That's no matter to Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who said Parnell's backup status speaks more to Dallas' depth than his ability.
"I think, across the league, he could start for any other team at right tackle – he's that talented," Callahan said. "We're really fortunate to be a little bit deep at tackle, so that's a good thing for us."
Parnell first stepped in at the tail end of the Oct. 12 Seattle win, when Free suffered a foot fracture. On his first play in the lineup, DeMarco Murray broke off right tackle for a 15-yard go-ahead touchdown.
"I think he's done great from top to bottom. I think he's stepped in and we haven't skipped a beat," Callahan said. "That speaks to his preparation and his ability to prepare week in and week out like a starter."
At this rate, Parnell is nearing the same number of starts as Free at the right tackle spot. He started in Weeks 7-9 while Free was injured. Then, when Free hurt his ankle Dec. 14 against Philadelphia, Parnell returned – and he's been the starter ever since.
Last week's game against Detroit's vaunted defensive line might have been his toughest challenge to date, and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he held up well.
"He's a good player and he has a lot of physical ability. I think he's learning how to use that, but I think he's also demonstrated some mental and emotional toughness," Garrett said.
It's been quite a trip for Parnell, who played basketball for Ole Miss before appearing in five football games – at defensive end – in his senior season. After going undrafted in 2009, he kicked around several time before landing in Dallas in 2011.
"I credit him and his perseverance," Callahan said. "He was a basketball player coming out of college, and how he transformed himself, made himself, converted himself into an offensive lineman – it's a story that needs to be told, because this guy has come a long, long way."
It'll make for an even more interesting story when the offseason rolls around, as Parnell is up for a new contract – as is Doug Free. It stands to reason that the Cowboys will want to keep them going forward. But if Parnell is starting-caliber, the Cowboys won't be the only team calling.
There will be time for that later, though – particularly if the Cowboys continue their playoff run. Sunday will mark another chance for him to prove himself, as the Packers boast pass rushers like Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews.
"He works his butt off in everything he does. He's a pro, and you appreciate stories like that – guys coming up from nowhere and doing well and having a chance and an opportunity," Callahan said. "This will be another opportunity on the stage for him this weekend."