The Ezekiel Elliott suspension was reinstated on Thursday after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the NFL to strike down an injunction preventing the implementation of the punishment. The effects could leave the Dallas Cowboys reeling.
Elliott’s six-game suspension begins immediately, pending a legal response. And, while it’s still entirely possible that Elliott can draw out the legal battle and still be allowed to play in 2017, it’s imperative that the Cowboys immediately shift their focus.
If Elliott can find a court sympathetic to their cause that will grant them another temporary restraining order, the fix is simple. You insert him into the starting lineup, no additional preparations necessary.
However, if he can’t go out and find a court battle he can win in time for the Cowboys’ Week 7 tilt with the San Francisco 49ers, getting Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden ready to play isn’t necessarily as easy. So it’s important that their bye week is dedicated to getting the offense ready for life without Elliott.
The Cowboys have been playing in the shadows of the Elliott suspension guillotine all season, so they should be prepared for the transition as best as one could be. But that doesn’t make masking his absence any easier.
Now, the Cowboys have to gameplan around the reality that Morris and McFadden can’t replace Elliott’s explosiveness. The vertical passing game will no longer have the benefit of Elliott and play-action to suck defenders into the box and freeze a defense long enough to attack down the field.
Instead, they’ll have to use Morris and McFadden to stay in manageable down-and-distance situations. They can also use Cole Beasley in the slot on extended handoffs and short and intermediate routes to supplement the relative safety of the running game.
You can also expect Dak Prescott to take a larger role in the running game. Although running him too hard opens Dallas up to the ultimate nightmare scenario of being without both Elliott and Prescott, so you have to make it clear to the quarterback that self-preservation may outweigh extending for the first down in some cases.
And while the Cowboys offensive line will still play with the expectation of dominating up front, even their focus shifts from getting to the second level to spring a potential big play for Elliott to securing the point of attack and generating a push for the short-to-intermediate gains that can help set up third-and-short.
Of course, Prescott is going to be asked to throw the ball more than ever, as well. That means they’ll need him to complete a higher percentage of his passes (scheming up safe, short and intermediate passing options will be key) and he’ll have to protect the football.
All of this would feel more manageable if the Cowboys had handled the early portion of the schedule and staked themselves a comfortable division lead or even acceptable playoff positioning. Unfortunately, they’re 2-3, so any sort of mass regression without Elliott could provide a disastrous result.
The Cowboys start with an opponent they can handle in the 49ers. But then they go on the road to play the Washington Redskins and then draw three consecutive first-place opponents (the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles).
Yes, there is still a chance that Elliott is eligible to play through all of it, which makes things more palatable. However, if he’s not there it requires the offensive execution to be nearly perfect.
So what’s next for the Cowboys is they prep for life without Elliott and hope for the best.
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