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Helman: For Better Or Worse, Cowboys Prepared Themselves For This Situation
OXNARD, Calif. – You’re going to have to forgive me if it's a cop out, but this whole thing feels a little bit beyond my pay grade.
You’ve undoubtedly read and reacted to the news by now. The NFL has suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games with no pay, citing violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. The reigning rushing champion and one of the Cowboys’ best players will be unavailable for the first six games of the season.
Of course, this story is far from over. There will likely be an appeal and perhaps legal action. As it stands right now, we don’t know exactly where this will go. The Tom Brady “Deflategate” saga dragged on for a year and a half.
There’s a lot I could write about the league’s 13-month investigation, detailed in a six-page letter the NFL sent to Elliott on Friday morning. I could spend another handful of paragraphs on Elliott’s off-field transgressions, which helped contribute to this ruling, and which have been thoroughly detailed on this website and countless others.
Rather than stewing in the middle of a muddled situation, though, I’m going to take a page out of Jason Garrett’s playbook and focus on what the Cowboys can control.
And, as I sit here in mid-August, I have to give this organization at least a little bit of credit for covering its backside.
All of a sudden, the stupidly stocked backfield seems to make a lot of sense. At the outset of this week, the Cowboys had more running backs than they knew what to do with – and most of them felt redundant. Just a few days later, it feels like the Cowboys are going to need every single one of them.
Now, please don’t mistake me. Ezekiel Elliott is a transcendent running back. He’s one of the brightest young talents in the NFL and a difference-maker whose talents aren’t going to be replicated by anyone on this roster.
But if Elliott is going to be unavailable for six games, then it’s hard to ask for better insurance policies than Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris – not to mention an intriguing young talent in Rod Smith.
It’s rare to find a situation where not one, but two different backups have accumulated 1,000-yard seasons – but that’s the case here. McFadden rushed for 1,089 yards for this team in 2015, when he started just 11 times. Morris averaged 1,178 yards per season during his four-year stint in Washington.
Throw in the recent addition of Ronnie Hillman, who rushed for 863 yards during his last 16-game season, and there is an uncanny amount of proven ability on this roster. Jason Garrett said that signing Hillman wasn’t related to Elliott’s off-field issues. Even if that is somehow true, it turned out to be fantastic timing.
Of course, none of them are Ezekiel Elliott. I’m not here to convince you they are.
But they are talented running backs, and they are still working behind what is widely considered one of the best – if not the best – offensive lines in football. From the time he was installed as the starter in Week 6 of 2015, McFadden averaged 87 yards per game for a bad team.
Last week in the Hall of Fame Game, Morris looked like his old Pro Bowl self, averaging six yards per carry against the Cardinals and prompting many to wonder why McFadden was ahead of him on the depth chart.
Even the lone unproven player in the equation, Smith, has looked like a stalwart during training camp. The third-year back has often worked ahead of Morris in practice, and he led all rushers last week with 64 hard-fought yards against Arizona.
It’s honestly too many mouths to feed. That’s why it was a bit surprising to see the Cowboys re-sign McFadden in the offseason, and that’s why it wasn’t a shock to see reports that the front office was open to trading Morris – who got lost in the shuffle during the stretch run last season.
But now, with the results of the Elliott investigation made public, it all makes too much sense. The Cowboys were never going to hurt their running back depth while there was a chance they’d be without Zeke. And while the results of an appeal are still to be determined, it certainly looks like he’ll be off the field for at least a little while.
That’s not ideal for the Cowboys, and it’s got to be troubling for Elliott’s long-term future.
But here in the short-term, where kickoff against the New York Giants is less than a month away, they’ve braced themselves to handle this about as well as you could possibly expect.Read