FRISCO, Texas – Well, it finally happened.
It has been a long, confusing and even absurd road, but it has been 90 days since Ezekiel Elliott was first given a six-game suspension by the NFL – and he finally seems poised to serve it.
Of course, I thought that last week, and that's why I started writing this column. I wasn't aware at the time that the suspension would be staved off by yet another twist in the legal system.
Considering how this whole thing has unfolded, it would be silly of me to try to predict what happens next. But as it stands right now, Elliott's next appeal hearing isn't slated to happen until Dec. 1, by which point he'll have missed four games. And even when he gets that hearing, it seems like a longshot it'll go his way.
So it really looks like it's time to settle in and consider life without Ezekiel Elliott.
I know we've covered the topic extensively by this point, but where else can you start when you're trying to examine what's going on with the Cowboys in Week 10? One of the most talented and visible players in the NFL is suddenly nowhere to be seen, right in the middle of what looks like the toughest stretch of the season.
So with that in mind, here's what I'm thinking about this week, big picture and small picture, as the Cowboys get ready for L.W.Z. – Life Without Zeke.
- Preseason feels like a long, long time ago. So I took it upon myself to give you a refresher. Here's the breakdown of how the Cowboys' non-Zeke running backs did in this summer's exhibition games.
Alfred Morris –30 carries, 158 yards, 5.3 YPC
Rod Smith –29 carries, 130 yards, 4.5 YPC
Darren McFadden –20 carries, 102 yards, 5.1 YPC
On top of that, I decided to go back and check the play logs. On 79 combined carries by these three, the runner was stopped in the backfield seven times. Darren McFadden ran for losses of four, four and two. He also lost a fumble in the preseason game against the Colts. Rod Smith ran for losses of four and three, and he was once stopped for no gain. Alfred Morris had one loss of one yard.
- Of course I know that preseason football is hardly a good indicator of the real thing. But honestly, that's about as good as we've got right now.
Of the 215 carries taken by Dallas running backs this season, Elliott has taken 191 of them – a whopping 88 percent. Yes, Morris and Smith have combined for 24 carries, but that's hardly a good sample size.
But in looking at the preseason resume, I feel pretty confident saying that the Cowboys are going to be able to run the ball. Honestly, they should be able to run it well. Sure, you lose an incredibly well-rounded running back in Zeke, and you probably lose the ability for game-breaking plays.
That's unfortunate, but it's not a deal breaker. The bottom line is that the Cowboys need to be able to run the ball effectively for the offense to work the way it's supposed to. Judging from a month of hard work in August, I really believe these three running backs have proven they're capable of that.
That's not a guarantee of success in the win-loss column, but it should be some comfort to think this offense can still operate the way it wants to.
- In a weird way, I almost feel excited to see exactly what this suspension means for the Cowboys and their makeup.
How many conversations have we had over the past 18 months about what exactly Ezekiel Elliott means to this team? Is he a once-in-a-generation running back, or could any ball carrier run behind that offensive line? Is Dak Prescott truly a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback, or does e just benefit from playing alongside the league's most fierce rushing attack?
People have been arguing about this stuff for more than a year, and now we're actually going to get to see it. Can the running game continue to function without an All-Pro running back? And maybe more importantly, can Dak still play like Dak without Zeke there to take the pressure off him?
Maybe I'll regret ever wondering this stuff in six weeks. Maybe we're about to watch a train wreck every bit as ugly as the one in 2015 that got us here in the first place. But I'm really curious to see it anyway.
- And in Dak's case in particular, what an opportunity this is to state your case.
Obviously, Dak would prefer to have Zeke in the lineup. He understands better than anyone what Zeke can do for this offense, and how much having him in the backfield helps him do his job.
But this will be a rare opportunity for Dak to stand alone in the Dallas backfield. Alfred Morris, Rod Smith and Darren McFadden are good players, but they aren't on Zeke's level. If he can keep this offense chugging despite this loss, it's going to say a lot about his ability as a quarterback – rather than a guy who's just benefiting from the talent around him.
Personally, I think it's silly that this is an argument some people are having. Dak has been playing at an absurd level for the past five weeks, and I don't think that's going to be affected too much by the running back situation. And if he can keep this ball rolling without one of the Cowboys' most talented players, it's going to be hard to deny him that credit.
If Dak Prescott can keep the Cowboys afloat while Zeke serves this suspension, he'll have earned his way into the NFL MVP conversation, as far as I'm concerned.
- This isn't exactly something to be proud of, but there are a few guys in the Dallas locker room who can empathize with Zeke's current situation.
DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving and Orlando Scandrick have all served NFL suspensions at one time or another. Judging from their experiences, I have to imagine it's going to be a frustrating few weeks for the young running back.
"It's just tough being away from your natural habitat and your environment," Lawrence said last week.
It's absolutely crazy to think how much about playing football revolves around routine. Teams structure their entire operation around an almost mind-numbing schedule – meeting, walkthrough, practice, meal, meeting. Day after day after day. Your teammates are part coworker, part family member, and they're some of the only people on the planet who can truly empathize with you.
The reward for this stress and monotony is game day – when you lock in for three hours, have fun and be a hero.
To hear it from Lawrence, Elliott is going to feel that loss over the course of the next six Sundays
"That's the toughest part," Lawrence said. "Sitting at home, watching the games like 'Dang, I know I would've made that play.' Zeke, don't watch the games, bro. Don't watch them."
- Speaking of Lawrence, Rod Marinelli hammered home a point that has been floating around for a while.
The narrative around the Cowboys for several years has been their lack of investment in the defense – specifically the pass rush, which has sagged toward the back of the league for several years. The problem is that, in 2017, that storyline doesn't really hold water.
The Cowboys are currently fifth in the NFL in sacks, and they're accomplishing that with guys they've developed themselves.
"The thing about it that's fun, that's nice – they're kind of homegrown," Marinelli said. "David is homegrown. We got him after, like, two weeks – but he started here. Maliek was drafted here. Ty was drafted here. D-Law, drafted here. And they go through the tough camps, they go through the hustle and pursuit drills, and you build them up."
Technically, the Kansas City Chiefs "found" David Irving, but Marinelli is right that the Cowboys brought him into the fold just four weeks into his rookie season. Maliek Collins was pick No. 67 in 2016, Tyrone Crawford was pick No. 81 in 2012 and DeMarcus Lawrence was pick No. 34 in 2014.
I'm not sure the Cowboys have "arrived" in the sense that their pass rush is set for the time being. But you can't say that they haven't invested in it – and they aren't done. Pass rush will likely still be a need in next year's draft. And then there's the matter of pick No. 28, Taco Charlton, and whether he can develop as impressively as the guys listed above.
"That's what I'm counting on, every day," Marinelli said. "He's working. But it doesn't come easy. This stuff doesn't come easy."
If Marinelli can coax the production out of Taco that he's gotten out of the others, there could come time where we laugh at the days when we ever considered this pass rush a liability – much like the offensive lines of old.
- Oh, dang. I had one more Zeke thought I wanted to share before we look ahead.
It's weird to think how much I'd like the Cowboys to get some insurance for their 22-year-old, sturdy running back. It shouldn't feel like a priority – but I think it is.
Sure, in the grand scheme of things, a six-game suspension is a blip on the radar. As a first-round pick with a fifth-year option on his deal, Zeke is potentially under contract for as many as 80 games. So we're talking about 7 percent of his rookie deal that he's missing out on. On top of that, as I mentioned, he is young and has never shown any tendency toward injury.
And yet, this entire ordeal offers a lesson about how suddenly you can have your career affected – by both on and off-field issues. You'd like to think that Zeke will stay out of trouble going forward, but you certainly can't guarantee it.
With that in mind, I look at the running back situation on this team going forward. Darren McFadden is 30 and his contract is up this year. Alfred Morris is 28 and his contract is up this year. I'm very optimistic about Rod Smith's future, but as of right now he is unproven – and even still, you need more than two running backs on a roster.
I'm not saying it's a drastic need by any means, but if I was in the Cowboys' front office, I would strongly suggest this team get a running back in next year's draft. It doesn't have to be a first or even a second-round pick – but I'm open to the idea once the third round starts.
Just this past year, the Chiefs found Kareem Hunt midway through the third round, at pick No. 86. The Redskins got Samaje Perine at pick No. 114, while the Bears found Tarik Cohen at pick No. 119. Jay Ajayi, who is now the Cowboys' problem as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, was taken all the way down at pick No. 149, in the fifth round.
There's a boatload of talent to be found at running back, and you can find plenty of it deep into the later rounds. As good as Ezekiel Elliott is, it might make this team sleep easier to have some young talent behind him in the future.
- I'm beyond devastated that we're not going to get to watch Deshaun Watson play any more football this year.
Watson tore his ACL in a non-contact drill last week, and now the Houston Texans are without their electric rookie quarterback until 2018. It's awful for Watson and the Texans – but man if it isn't a loss for anyone who likes watching football, too.
The dude was on pace to throw for 43 touchdowns and run for another 600 yards on top of that. He's got a long way to go in terms of polish, but my word is he fun. In Houston's loss to Seattle on Oct. 29, he accounted for 469 of Houston's 509 yards. That's absolutely insane for a first-year player.
Fortunately, ACL injuries aren't quite the career-ender they used to be. I'm incredibly confident Watson is going to come back just fine. In the meantime, chin up, dude.
- This has been quite the trend in the NFL this year, and I can't think of another word for it but "crappy."
Watson is the latest casualty, but it honestly feels like we're losing all of the game's most electric players. Aaron Rodgers is done for the year with a broken collar bone. Odell Beckham is done for the year with a broken ankle. J.J. Watt – Houston's other star – is out for the year with a tibial plateau fracture. Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Minnesota. While we're making the list, you might as well throw in Zeke and his six-game suspension.
There are still plenty of great players in this league, and the product on the field has been entertaining far more often than it hasn't been. But man, it just feels like all the players that make you say "Wait, flip to the other channel real quick" are hurt.
Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham and Deshaun Watson are all capable of taking over a game, and of completely taking your breath away. NFL careers don't last long. It's a bummer when we as fans miss out on key years of their prime.
- It's been more than a week and I'm still heartbroken that Jaylon Smith couldn't quite come down with that interception at FedEx Field.
In the big picture, it's not a huge deal. He made a nice play on the ball, and he struggled to hold onto it in the wet conditions. He'll have other opportunities.
What's really striking me, though, is what we're seeing from Jaylon in his new role since Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens returned from injury. In the first five games of the season, when one or both of those two were hurt, Smith played 260 snaps – an average of 52 per game.
In the three weeks since the bye week, with both Lee and Hitchens in the lineup, that snap count has dropped to 66 – an average of 22 per game. He started off with a healthy 32 snaps against San Francisco. Against Washington and Kansas City, that number dropped to just 17 each.
What he's doing with such a small sample size is awfully encouraging. In the 32 snaps against the 49ers, he recorded seven tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble. In the 17 snaps against the Redskins, he recorded three tackles, a quarterback pressure and a pass defense – which was very nearly an interception.
Last week might have been his least-active game, but he still managed to make three tackles and added a pressure on Alex Smith for good measure.
It's only three games, but it really seems like less is more in this instance. I still think Jaylon is capable of being an every-down linebacker and doing so at a high level. But lessening his workload looks like it's allowing him to be more explosive when he is on the field. To this point it looks like it's paying off.
- I really do have a good feeling that the Cowboys can weather this six-game suspension, but that opinion is subject to change once I actually see what they look like without Zeke.
Going into Sunday, this is my best guess at how this running back situation shakes out against the Falcons.
Alfred Morris –16 carries, 87 yards, 1 touchdown
Rod Smith –8 carries, 45 yards
Darren McFadden– 4 carries, 15 yards
That might not be particularly exciting, but I think it's good enough to win you some games while you wait to resume Life With Zeke.