The Dallas Cowboys, in a year in which they possess realistic Super Bowl aspirations, will begin the regular season without one of the league’s most valuable and seemingly indispensable players in their lineup, barring a successful appeal by running back Ezekiel Elliott of the six-game suspension imposed on him Friday by the NFL under its personal conduct policy.
Should Elliott’s appeal fail, the Cowboys’ Super Bowl hopes certainly will be dented. Absent the league’s leading rusher from 2016, they must hope those football-related repercussions are mitigated by the presence of veteran runners Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, and by a versatile offense that can lean on second-year quarterback Dak Prescott, a still-imposing offensive line and a reliable group of receivers.
“I just feel very confident that if there is a suspension — we hope there’s not — that we’ll certainly be able to, to use a Bill Parcells term, hold the fort and be successful with or without Zeke,” Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said late last month at the team’s training camp in Oxnard, California.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had said repeatedly that a suspension was not merited in Elliott’s case. But the league concluded otherwise after a long-running investigation, and now the Cowboys must confront the reality that they will be without Elliott for a portion of the regular season, provided the NFL’s punishment stands.
The Cowboys open the season at home Sept. 10 against the New York Giants in a nationally televised Sunday night game. They play at Denver in Week 2 and at Arizona in Week 3 before returning home to face the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 1.
An early season misstep or two could be costly for the Cowboys. The NFC East is expected to be a highly competitive division. The Giants are coming off a playoff season and the Washington Redskins just missed the cut. The Philadelphia Eagles have fortified their offense around quarterback Carson Wentz as he, like Prescott, enters his second NFL season.
The Cowboys also must worry about would-be top NFC contenders such as the Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers in the scramble for conference supremacy and seeding in the NFC playoffs. The Cowboys, with Prescott and Elliott prospering as rookies, won the division and secured the top NFC postseason seed last season. But they lost a thrilling conference semifinal at home to the Packers.
Morris said last month in Oxnard that he and McFadden were preparing as if they were going to play significant roles in the offense. That would have been the case, he said, even if Elliott had not been under investigation.
“I think it’s the same,” Morris said then. “We’re veterans. We’re mature guys. Our mindset is always like we’re starters. We’re one play away from being a starter. You never know what’s going to happen in this business. You always prepare. We always approach every day as if we’re the guy. I feel regardless of what’s going on, it doesn’t affect how we approach every day. We approach every day as if we’re the starter and we’re getting ready to carry the load.”
McFadden has not been known for durability or consistency in his NFL career but is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. Morris had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Redskins before joining the Cowboys before last season.
“I think we’ve got depth at the running back position,” Stephen Jones said last month. “McFadden rushed for [more than 1,000] yards … the year before we had Zeke. Then, of course, we have Alfred Morris as well who’s a proven 1,000-yard rusher. And then you just look to what’s surrounding, the supporting cast around that running back position.
“We’ve got, we think, obviously one of the top, if not the top, offensive lines in the game. We’ve got a really solid receiving corps with Dez [Bryant] and Cole [Beasley] and Terrance [Williams], with some good depth in behind that. You look at an all-pro, Hall of Famer like Jason Witten who’s going to be in that huddle.”