Veteran running back Alfred Morris said the Cowboys addressed the “elephant in the room” and have moved on.
That elephant is the strong possibility of a six-game suspension for star running back Ezekiel Elliott, could begin after the Cowboys’ season opener against the New York Giants, meaning Elliott will be eligible to play in that game.
Ezekiel Elliott’s immediate football future will become much clearer by 5:00 p.m. Friday. Federal judge, Amos Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas, has said he will rule by then on whether to grant the Cowboys running back his motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction. If the motion is granted, Elliott will play beyond Sunday’s season opener.
However, if the suspension holds up, the Dallas Cowboys will not have the services of the 2016 NFL leading rusher until their November 5 game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
How the Cowboys handle the temporary loss of Elliott will determine how far they go this season. Obviously, a suspension like this will bring a great deal of media attention to the locker room, and that is nothing new to America’s Team. However, how they handle the distraction and the loss of the star running back will be interesting.
When Tony Romo went down with an injury in 2015, a year when the Cowboys had Super Bowl aspirations coming off of what they had done the previous year, the entire team went into the tank. A seven-game losing streak followed as the team was unable to rally around itself and move forward. That and not having a competent backup quarterback at the time.
Last year was a different story. After yet another injury to Romo, this time in preseason, Dak Prescott came out of nowhere and took the league by surprise, not only with his play but with his composure as well. Couple that with the quick emergence of a rookie running back in Elliott and Dallas rebounded from the disastrous 2015 season to win the NFC East in 2016.
Now, with one-half of that dynamic duo out for an extended period, the Cowboys will need young Prescott’s composure and calming influence more than ever.
Elliott will be good to go in week one, but the team will need everyone to pick up the slack if Elliott’s suspension goes into affect.
Part of Dallas’ plan to replace Elliott will fall involve Alfred Morris. Interestingly enough, Morris had been fighting for a roster spot before Elliott’s suspension was announced because of the emergence in training camp of third-year running back Rod Smith. Smith, who was actually teammates with Elliott at Ohio State, has been on the roster since being picked up off waivers in October of 2015 following his release by Seattle which took place after he had played in just one game for them.
With the Cowboys, in particular their 2017 training camp, Smith performed so admirably that Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said it was a priority to get Smith significant touches in a game environment.
“We wanted to give the bulk of the snaps at running back to Rod,” Garrett said, following the Dallas’ 20-18 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the Hall of Fame game. “He got a lot of snaps, he got a lot of carries in the game. I thought he handled himself well.”
In that contest, Smith carried the ball 18 times for 64 yards and caught three passes for 25 more. He even hurdled a Cardinals defender, dubbing it a “Zeke leap” after his college and professional teammate.
“He’s playing with more and more confidence, and you see that,” Garrett continued. “It wasn’t always pretty, but I thought he handled himself well – both in the run game and the pass game.”
Smith believes that with the ball in his hands, special things can happen, but understands there is more work to do.
“I was eager. I was fired up. I didn’t want to come out,” he said following the Arizona game. “When they finally pulled me out, I didn’t want to come out at all. But for the most part, I felt like I did decent. Still got a lot more to do.”
And despite all that, veteran Darren McFadden is still expected to start in place of Elliott if the young star misses time. The Cowboys will still have Morris at their disposal, of course, and Morris, let’s not forget, started his career with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with the Redskins.
Morris has looked quicker in training camp than he did a year ago in his first season with the Cowboys. He said that’s because he has a better understanding of the offense, but he improved his offseason training as well.
Morris said he switched up his offseason training routine going into training camp as well as his diet. These changes, he feels, should allow him to play at a faster and more explosive pace. What should help him even more is having another offseason in the offense under his belt. After spending four years doing things one way in Washington, Morris had to learn brand new terminology last year and that, along with the emergence of Elliott, contributed to hampering his production.
Jason Garrett, though, loves what Morris brings to the table.
“He works very hard each and every day both on and off the field to get himself to where he can play his best,” Garrett said.
“He’s got a great spirit about him, a great spirit in life and a great spirit about the opportunity to play football here with us.”
However much playing time each of these three rushers receives should Elliott miss time, the Dallas Cowboys should at least keep the ship steady until Elliott returns. Two former 1,000-yard rushers in McFadden and Morris, and a young man with a chip on his shoulder, feeling like he has something to improve in Rod Smith. Combine that with an emerging quarterback, excellent receivers, and arguably the best offensive line in football, and the Dallas Cowboys should see little or no drop-off in offensive production if Ezekiel Elliott does indeed serve his suspension.
[Featured Image by Tom Pennington/Getty Images]