It happens to somebody every year. A player who has come from relative anonymity to succeed in the league, only to cash in with a healthy contract extension, becomes the subject of increased scrutiny and raised expectations.
This year, it's left tackle Doug Free. In 2009 he was a pleasant surprise stepping in for the injured Marc Colombo. In 2010 he was the bright spot on a bad line. This year, on a line that's struggling, he hasn't been the rock solid, dependable player that a four-year, $32 million contract would seem to suggest he should.
While the entire offensive line has struggled to achieve anything in the ground game, Free leads the team in penalties with five, four of which have led to stalled drives, and it's one of the foremost things he's looking to correct.
"Penalties are definitely things that bother players," Free said. "It's a negative play. It hurt everybody on the team, not just yourself, so it's something you really try to limit."
Free's play arguably has been effected by the Cowboys' decision to move veteran guard Kyle Kosier to the right side in order to help rookie tackle Tyron Smith. With Kosier moved, there's been a revolving door of sorts at left guard.
Montrae Holland, the expected starter this week, will be the fourth player to line up next to Free. The overall revamping of the line, with four of the five position occupied by new players, is a major factor to the unit's lack of cohesion.
"Until you get a chance to really work with some guys," Free said. "By now we should kind of have a pretty good hold on things, but we're still always continuing to work - different guys have different techniques, different ways to block things, so everybody's just got to get a feel for everybody and work on it."
Also making things more difficult for Free this season is the fact opposing players now have more and more knowledge of his style, and tape to watch on him. The battle between pass rushers and blockers is a chess game of sorts, with each side attempting to gain the upper hand in preparation.
"I can kind of see why people would say that a little bit," Free said. "You definitely have a little bit more expectations of yourself. Last year, you're out there, kind of trying to get the job done. This year, you know what you're job is and you're trying to be as perfect as you can."