- Dallas was hoping that their young running back would become the focal point of the offense this season. A six-week suspension could keep the team at home in January.
Ezekiel Elliott, his legal team and the NFLPA are on the clock. There are 10 days left before the Cowboys play again (Dallas has a bye in Week 6), and 10 days to convince a district court either in Texas or in New York to grant him another preliminary injunction on an expedited schedule. He could, too, pursue an en banc hearing with the Fifth Circuit, appealing to the court that just allowed the NFL to enforce his six-game suspension.
The fact that the Fifth Circuit focused solely on the timing of the filing—the union filed before the NFL arbitration process was complete, and the appeals court ruled that meant the court lacked jurisdiction—in vacating Elliott’s injunction should help him. Neither Elliott’s likelihood to win, nor whether he’d suffer irreparable harm were written into the decision.
But let’s say this drags out to cost Elliott at least a game or two, or even the full six. Then what?
Whether Elliott’s gone for the next few weeks, or just the next few days, the first test will be a mental one for the Cowboys. The team had this hanging over its training camp and the days leading up to its opener, and now it’s back to square one. Elliott’s case figures to be up in the air for much of next week, if it doesn’t take longer than that to get an injunction ruling, and that could take a toll on the group.
Coming off a strong season only to go belly-up the next isn’t an unfamiliar trend for Dallas. They went 13–3 in 2007, and then Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones and Co. wound up tearing the team apart at the end of the ’08 season. The Cowboys won a playoff game in 2009, and followed that up with a season so bad in ’10 that Wade Phillips was fired in November. They went 12–4 in 2014, and then Tony Romo got hurt and the Greg Hardy signing blew up, causing the ’15 team to melt down.
When I talked to COO Stephen Jones about avoiding a down year after the success in 2016 a couple weeks ago, he conceded that in ’15, “We dwelled too much on when people were gonna get back and who was not there, rather than focusing on who’s playing right now, and let’s count on the people that are here. I think that was probably true of us as an organization.”
Similarly, this time around, the Cowboys will have to avoid using Elliott’s legal situation as a crutch or an excuse.
Then, there’s the on-field piece of this. Dallas was expecting Elliott to become the focal point of their offense—in fact, they kind of needed him to be. The defense is working a number of younger players in, and there could be more shootouts, like last Sunday’s showdown against the Packers, still to come this season. The Cowboys rank 10th in the NFL in total offense, but there are concerns over Dez Bryant’s ability to separate (he’s averaging just 12.6 yards on 21 catches), Jason Witten is 35, and the offensive line, with turnover at left guard and right tackle, is not quite the force it was last year.
And finally, there’s the schedule. Dallas can probably weather the storm for a week if the injunction is still hung up in the courts—they play at San Francisco on Oct. 22. But from there, the slate’s not forgiving. The Cowboys visit Washington, host the Chiefs, visit Atlanta and then host the Eagles. Those four teams all rank in the top eight in total offense, and three of them are among the top four on that side of the ball, meaning there’ll be even more on Dak Prescott and a still-good-but-maybe-not-great offense to keep pace with the opponent.
This isn’t to say the entire season is going to unravel, like it did at the end of 2008 or from start to finish in 2010 or ’15. My feeling is Jason Garrett has his program in a better place, and with less divisive forces in place, and that tells me we won’t see a collapse. But can they buck the trend those teams set, and actually make the playoffs for a second consecutive year?
That part got a lot murkier late on Thursday afternoon.