IRVING, Texas – For the final month of the 2012 season, Doug Free saw the Cowboys take away half of his reps at right tackle.
Last month, the Cowboys took away half of his salary for this season.
But make no mistake, Doug Free's drive to compete and win the starting job back is plenty full.
Yet, the seventh-year-pro plans to handle the upcoming competition with Jermey Parnell the same way he handled the last three months of not knowing his future with the club. He'll keep his head down, mouth shut, and will be ready to play.
"Any time you're competing against a guy, you're going to either step it up to the next level or fade away," Free said. "Just every day, I'm going to come out and do my best and try to stay positive about the whole deal. Anything I can help Jermey with, being an older guy, I'm going to try and help him. Anything I can do to make the team better is what I'm here for."
Free already helped the Cowboys' salary cap by reducing his salary from $7 million to $3.5 million, which is fully guaranteed this season. So he will be on the roster in 2013, something he wasn't so sure about a few months ago when rumors and speculation swirled over him that his days in Dallas could be over.
"I really had no clue what was going to happen the whole time. I kept it wide open," Free said. "You never really know what's going to happen. I kept the options open and realized I can't control everything."
Through it all, Free continued to act like a member of the organization. He worked out here at the Valley Ranch facility and attended light-hearted team functions such as the Home-Run Derby for charity and the annual golf social with the Cowboys' corporate sponsors.
"I've been here a long time. I wanted to handle it a professional way," Free said. "No matter what happened, until I wasn't a Cowboy, I was going to be a Cowboy."
Even if certain media reports suggested his days in Dallas were numbered.
"I tend not to pay attention to the media too much – I stay away from that stuff," he said. "A lot of it doesn't matter. Some of it stirs the wrong emotions into people. I just try to keep my head down and stay focused on what I need to accomplish and work hard.
"A lot of things go on in everyone's life. The main thing I thought of was (taking care of) myself. Whatever happens, I knew I had to be the best player I can be. Let things play out like they did. There wasn't a lot I could control at the time. I just kept striving, going forward to be the best player I can be."
And that's the question the Cowboys must answer – just how good is the best player Doug Free can be? After the 2010 season, they paid him a four-year, $32 million contract based off one full year as a starting left tackle. Since then, Free didn't live up to the contract, especially last year where he was flagged for 15 penalties, which according to the website Pro Football Focus, led the entire NFL.
Free knows he must improve in 2013, but says that should be the mindset of every offensive lineman.
"I think across the line we have to get better," Free said. "All the positions last year were not to the level they need to be. Me, (Tyron Smith), everyone has to take it up to another level and work hard."
Free said he's excited to learn from offensive line coach Bill Callahan for a second year. The tackle said it was a transition last season to adjust to a new way of thinking for the offensive linemen. [embedded_ad]
"We're definitely getting more comfortable," Free said. "Everyone is learning his stuff and his techniques. I think we're understanding what he wants better."
As for the team, Free still considers himself a leader because of his veteran status. As an experienced player, he believes the Cowboys are close to turning that proverbial corner. But he doesn't have the answer on how to get there.
"There's not one thing, it's a lot of little things," Free said. "It could be one play a game that could change the whole game. We're right there on the cusp. We just have to push harder." He knows he'll be pushed by Parnell for his job, but for now, Free is just happy to be in the mix.