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Spagnola: Burden Of Proof Now Rests On Cowboys To Survive Zekeless

FRISCO, Texas – Every player in the National Football League should take notice.

         Every team in the National Football League better take notice.

         This can happen to you, too.

         The six-game suspension of Ezekiel Elliott and the subsequent denials of injunctions until an official appeal hearing can take place is melting the ice you stand on in this league. And it's growing pretty thin.

         See, what has happened to Zeke and *the Dallas Cowboys can happen to you, too. Now, ya'll might say, naw, not me, I'll never get myself in that situation where I'm accused of this or that. Ya'll might say I'll never get myself into any sort of investigation, that if I think I'm innocent I will trust the court systems in the United States – that you are innocent until *proven guilty. Right, that's how we roll.

         But I'm just sayin', what if …

         That is why the NFL having the power to punish without a court conviction has for sure, or at least should have, scared the bejeezus out of every player in the NFL. And if that's not enough to scare you, then every one of these court proceedings ruling in favor of the NFL and citing the Collective Bargaining Agreement you all agreed to as the reason these judges don't want to interfere with the Labor Management Relations Act should.

         And here is the precedent:

         Even though Ezekiel Elliott was not convicted of any sort of domestic abuse by the district attorney in Columbus, Ohio – heck, he wasn't even charged either – the NFL, under the terms of the CBA and with its own investigation, can suspend you for six games.

         And as it turns out – so far – every court in this land but Judge Mazzant's in the Eastern District of Texas has refused to intercede with a preliminary injunction until Zeke's and the NFLPA's lawsuit appeal is heard, the latest rejection coming Thursday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit's three-judge panel.

         Too bad the NFLPA rushed to file for an injunction before the arbitration judgment was rendered, a technicality that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans used to overturn his decision but a point the Second Circuit actually brought up while questioning the NFL's presentation on Thursday, saying, if not for legal procedures this case would have been settled in favor of Zeke. So why should we deny an injunction based on no merit of winning his case?

         But in the end, the court ruled in favor of not issuing an injunction for Zeke.

         In a perverse sort of way, maybe Jourdan Lewis being charged and deciding to fight his domestic abuse case in court, where he was found innocent, was heaven-sent. He was found innocent in a court of law, and not sure even the NFL would try to supersede that decision with a suspension.

         I think.

         Now, as a consolation of sorts – providing some hope he will eventually beat the NFL's charges, though seemingly slim at best at this point – at least the Second Circuit in New York has called for an expedited hearing of Zeke's appeal, setting the trial date for Dec. 1, the Friday after he will have missed four of the next six games, that fourth game coming on Nov. 30 against Washington. Thought was all along the case wouldn't hit the courts until like April or May.

         So, one last time, we'll see.

         But if the Tom Brady Deflategate case hadn't permanently set a precedent for courts to rule against players appealing a flawed arbitration case, and sure seems like it has, Zeke's case hammers home the point that courts don't want to mess with a collectively bargained agreement giving one person impervious authority.

         This is why the NFL so desperately wanted to – needed to – win this case, and continued throwing down as many legal road spikes as it could to prevent the NFLPA from earning a favorable ruling. Who knows, the NFL might have pursued this case so vigorously to pose as a prime example to deter domestic abuse, basically pointing out this, too, can happen to you if involved in any sort of abuse.

         "I'm disappointed when he's not going to play," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says. "But it is what it is … I really fervently disagree that we shouldn't have him on the playing field."

         But the Cowboys won't, and now head to Atlanta, then at least the next three games, knowing for sure they will not have the services of the league's defending rushing champ and the guy just 17 yards off the lead heading into Week 10's round of games. And guarantee you, the aforementioned notwithstanding, no one in the league is particularly feeling sorry for them, either.

         Most of all, the Cowboys can't feel sorry for themselves. Hey, in the infamous words of Jason Garrett, "Let's go play."

         That the 5-3 Cowboys will Sunday against the Falcons (4-4) with the stable of running backs they kept in place just in case what seemed as this inevitable suspension came down: Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, Rod Smith. Rarely do teams keep four running backs and a fullback on the 53-man roster. But this was the Cowboys' insurance policy from the beginning as they were bracing for the possibility.

         So next man up, right? But to further describe this dilemma, Next men up!

         Sure sounds as if Morris will get the start. While he has been Zeke's main backup the first half of the season, with McFadden having been inactive for those eight games, it's not as if the Cowboys have sunk their teeth into the sixth-year veteran. He's had only 14 carries (86 yards, but 70 of those on one run) and just 33 snaps, so an average a tad more than four a game and a high of nine in mop-up duty against the Niners.

         But I think all along the plan has been to make sure McFadden was healthy and fresh for this eventuality. And he is. In fact, hasn't had a regular-season carry since going 7 for 28 in the final regular-season game of last year in Philadelphia with Zeke being preserved for the playoffs. Plus, thanks to that injured wrist, he only played in three games last year.

         So when Jones says, "He's fresh," he means fresh.

         And then there is Smith. He's actually touched the ball 12 times in eight games so far, 10 runs for 69 yards and two catches for 23 yards. Don't go to sleep on him. He might be used more than you would think.

         These guys are ready to go, and the timing of the court hearing on Thursday actually benefited the Cowboys. Zeke took the majority of the first-team reps on Wednesday, as usual, but in his absence the next day, "Actually that worked out well since the other guys got the work (Thursday)," said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who went on to point out that "Rod has been getting snaps all along."

         Or as Jones said of Smith, "I think he's developing into a very viable three-down back."

Sure sounds as if the Cowboys running game buoyed all this time by the big-headed monster will now become a three-headed monster, posing the question of will the Falcons adjust defensively.

         Answer seems probably not. Remember, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn brought that Seattle-style defense with him to Atlanta, meaning one that crowds the line of scrimmage with a lot of eight-man fronts, challenging an offense to beat them throwing the football.

         Well, pound these three guys and have at it Dak. The Cowboys sure have the weapons to beat a team throwing the football. Go ask the Chiefs, Prescott completing 21 of 33 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Or go ask Green Bay, San Francisco and Washington. In each of those games Dak finished with three touchdown passes, giving him 11 in the past five games and 16 this season.

         Not trying in any way to minimize Zeke's absence. But as former Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner used to say back in the day, "There are ways to win these games."

         There sure is. And the Cowboys need to hold down the fort until Zeke returns, no sooner of course than the Dec. 10 Giants game and most likely not until the six-game suspension is served, meaning the Christmas Eve game against Seattle.

         Posting a winning record in the interim would be one heck of a Christmas present, no? For Zeke, for themselves, and you, too.

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