• The star running back has dropped his appeal, and his absence will continue to disrupt an offense built around his talents
  • Other sections include: Tyrod Taylor’s benching, a new identity for the Steelers, the Vikings’ short-term focus and much more
By Albert Breer
November 15, 2017

On the Cowboys’ first play from scrimmage last Sunday, Alfred Morris took the handoff, cut back to avoid Falcons defensive tackle Dontari Poe, then followed behind the blocks of tight end Jason Witten and left tackle Chaz Green.

Morris picked up two yards. Ezekiel Elliott might have had five. Or more. And thus, those paying close attention got a first-hand look at exactly what the Cowboys feared they’d miss with the reigning rushing champion serving the first game of a six-game suspension, stemming from a 2016 domestic incident in Columbus, Ohio.

So the next play was second-and-8 rather than, say, second-and-6, and the Atlanta rush could tee off on Dak Prescott, without regard for the run. It did, and Prescott felt it and threw a pick to Desmond Trufant. The interception was nullified by an offsides flag. But the tone was set. This scenario would play out over and over all afternoon.

“Zeke is incredibly efficient,” said one Dallas staffer. “Like, if you run on first down, you’re almost guaranteed 3 or 4 yards, which puts you in a great second-down situation. So you’re almost always on track. … Second-and-8 or 9 is a different world than second-and-4-to-6.”

Did the Cowboys miss left tackle Tyron Smith on Sunday? Of course they did, and Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn had six sacks to show for it. But they missed Elliott more, and with the news coming down Wednesday that the second-year bellcow is dropping his appeal, Dallas is now scrambling to reset an offensive identity that has come to be grounded on the talents of its 22-year-old phenom.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll take you inside the Bills’ stunning quarterback decision; explain how the Steelers defense is once again carrying the flag for the franchise; check in on Jerry vs. the NFL (Jerry vs. the world?); and diagnosis the Vikings’ quarterback situation one more time with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.

Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Teleram/TNS via Getty Images

But we’re starting in Dallas with the end of Elliott’s legal saga. So where do all these parties go from here? Glad you asked. The fallout will be felt by the team, its star, and the league and union…

For the Team

Prescott has been fantastic through his first 25 games as a pro, but he’s also been insulated by football’s best offensive line and one of the best backs to come into the NFL in a generation. On Sunday, the quarterback was thrown into the proverbial cold.

The above only foreshadowed the rest of Dallas’ 27-7 loss. Sixteen of Dallas’ first 17 second downs were second-and-8 or longer, accounting for a stretch of 54 minutes, and for the Falcons seizing control of the game. It was 27-7 by the time the Cowboys had second-and-less-than-8 for a second time. Second-and-long led to third-and-long, which changed circumstances completely on Prescott and the Smith-less line.

And, as a second Dallas staffer put it, when I referenced that first series, “The presence of Zeke makes more difference than on any specific run. Defenses will play gaps a little different, they take chances to shoot gaps or run underneath moreso now.”

Jason Witten on Longevity, and Living With Thursday Games

Now, if you’re hung up on Chaz Green allowing Clayborn to run wild, you should first consider the two games of consequence the Cowboys were without Smith last year. In the first, a 31-17 win over Chicago, Green started at left tackle, Elliott rushed for 140 yards on 30 carries, and Prescott was not sacked. The next week, Green started again, Elliott went 138 yards on 23 carries, and Prescott was sacked just twice.

It’s not hard to deduce here that the efficiency that Elliott brings on the ground sets the table for so much of what the Cowboys have become over the past 14 months. So it shouldn’t surprise, with the efficiency gone, that Green and the rest of the line struggled mightily to protect Prescott—and demonstrated the reigning rushing champion’s value in a pretty vivid way.

For the Star

There are two people who know what happened two summers ago in Columbus. If Elliott is guilty, and lying about what happened with Tiffany Thompson, he deserves more than six games. If he isn’t? I’ve maintained he should fight this thing to the end, whether the suspension was to be enforced or not, because that scarlet letter being pinned to his reputation won’t be easy to shed.

Elliott’s lawyers said this in a statement Wednesday: “This decision arises from a practical assessment of the legal landscape. Mr. Elliott’s desire for closure in this matter is in his best interest, as well as the best interests of his teammates, family and friends. This decision is in no way an admission of any wrongdoing.”

Unfortunately for Elliott, many fans will see this as that, even though he wasn’t ever charged with a crime in this case. That six-game suspension he’ll serve is, indeed, for his involvement in a domestic violence case—a fact that will be tough for him to shake.

For the League and Union

Make no mistake, this is a huge win for the NFL. It again sends the message the legal system is not a lever for players who aren’t satisfied with the results they get from the league’s internal appeals process. More than just that, where the Tom Brady situation last year established case law for future NFL/player squabbles, this reinforced that case law.

For Roger Goodell, How Long Is Too Long?

And as the league sees it, that was driven home when the circuit court set an expedited schedule for Elliott’s case that moved even faster than what the union sought. It sent the message that the court wanted to be done with the case quickly, as it believed the Brady precedent would hold.

So, yes, to the rest of us, there are still plenty of examples that make the NFL’s process look like kangaroo court. What the Elliott case tells us, though, is that doesn’t really matter. Article 46, granting the commissioner power over these cases, does.

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Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

1. The biggest game of this weekend for a handful of NFL teams will be at the Coliseum, and the Rams aren’t even home on Sunday. Archrivals USC and UCLA meet for the 87th time, and potential Top 5 picks Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen will lock horns for the final time (presuming at least one declares for the draft) as collegians. Should be a fun one.

Why Josh Allen Is the NFL Draft’s Most Polarizing Prospect

2. Tyrod Taylor’s $6 million roster bonus, and the $10 million base salary attached to it for 2018, make it a virtually certainty that he’ll be cut by the Bills and hit the market in March. And that market could have Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater on it. (Jimmy Garoppolo’s up, too, but the Niners will almost certainly tag or sign him.) As we said here before, add that to an intriguing draft class and it’ll be a fascinating spring at the position.

3. I asked one player who’s been vocal in his criticism of Thursday Night Football about its future last week. He immediately raised the idea owners often have floated of moving the Super Bowl to Presidents Day weekend, and adding a second bye to the schedule, which would allow the flexibility to front each TNF game with an off week. To me, that’s always been the most logical solution.

4. ICYMI: Brett Hundley actually looked like an NFL quarterback last Sunday in Chicago as the Packers snapped their three-game losing streak. His performance has given the team some hope that he can help them tread water into December contention. The problem? The schedule. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are next, and the Packers close with the Panthers, Vikings and Lions.

5. Pro Football Talk mentioned Denver’s Vance Joseph as a coach who could be fighting for his job down the stretch. It’s something I heard earlier in the week, too. And while it doesn’t seem fair, or particularly sharp, to hire a young coach who only spent one year as a coordinator, and then turn around and not let him grow into the job, the Broncos’ defense is approaching the back end of its prime and so there is a sense of urgency there, plus the fact that John Elway’s never been afraid to act aggressively. It’s worth keeping an eye on that one.

6. I’m not sure if the Patriots asked the league to stack its trip to Denver in front of the trip to Mexico City—teams often make requests like that to scheduling czar Howard Katz—but if they did … then that was brilliant. The team played Sunday at 5,200 feet at Mile High, its practicing in Colorado Springs this week, and all that should have the Patriots ready to play at 7,000 feet in Mexico on Sunday.

7. If the Giants do decide to blow up their football operation—and that would be the first time they’ve done that in my lifetime (I’m 37)—the GM job will be about as hotly pursued as it gets, and there’s already a lot of noise out there about the big names the Maras and Tisches could pursue.

NFC Is NFL’s Power Conference; Adrian Clayborn Reborn; Richard Sherman Talks Injury

8. We’ll see what happens but perception has built in scouting circles that Carolina interim GM Marty Hurney would like to keep the job and peel the interim tag off his nameplate. Hurney, the team’s GM from 2002-12, was brought back to shepherd the team from Dave Gettleman’s strangely-timed summer firing through this season.

9. Speaking of perception, there’s always been one out there that Seattle’s system doesn’t demand great corner play—it’s more built on its safeties—and that’ll be tested now. Four-time All-Pro CB Richard Sherman played in 105 consecutive games, every one in his seven-year career, before blowing out his Achilles last Thursday. He started the last 99 of those games.

10. Drew Brees is on pace for 4,263 yards, which would be his lowest total in 12 seasons as a Saint. And that’s positively fantastic news for a team that’s winning with its third-ranked running game and eighth-ranked defense. The Saints don’t need Brees to throw for 300 yards every week to win anymore. It also could make coming back more attractive for the prospective free agent, who’ll turn 39 during the playoffs.

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. The Steelers defense is carrying its share of the load. In 2013, Pittsburgh finished outside the top 10 in total defense for the first time since 1999. And in going through a rebuild on that side of the ball, the Steelers haven’t returned to the top 10 since. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have emerged as elite playmakers on offense, and Pittsburgh’s identity has changed accordingly. So put all that together, and you’ll see why a game like last Sunday in Indianapolis was so significant.

“Honestly, the offense has been carrying the defense, and this team, for a while,” linebacker Ryan Shazier told me after Wednesday’s walkthrough. “And we really respect everything they do, and honestly when we get the opportunity to give back the helping hand that they’ve given us over the years, it feels amazing. Just so they know, ‘Hey, if we’re having a down day, they got us.’”

Ben Roethlisberger threw a pick on Pittsburgh’s first possession, and the Steelers went three-and-out on their second possession, and had a goose egg on the scoreboard at the two-minute warning ahead of halftime. From there? A Bud Dupree sack set up field position so the Steelers could pick up a first down before the break, and a Shazier interception in the fourth quarter deep in Colts territory led to the game-tying points. On the pick itself Shazier showed his own growth—he relied on his preparation and instincts to improvise on the fly—that illustrated how a young group has learned to play faster. Pittsburgh ran a blitz, and Shazier knew tight end Jack Doyle had become Jacoby Brissett’s bailout guy. “I was blitzing, and I couldn’t find a hole to blitz through or an area to get in, and I saw Doyle starting to slide out,” Shazier said. “And my instincts, I saw him sliding down and said, ‘Hey, he’s probably going out, I need to make the tackle.’ So I was going in to cover him, saw the ball tipped a little bit, and last second I dropped my hand down and made sure I secured the ball.”

Now, the 25-and-under Pittsburgh core of Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and Sean Davis (Cam Heyward and Joe Haden, 28, are the greybeards) may not wind up being a latter-day version of the Troy Polamalu/Ryan Clark/James Harrison/James Farrior. But right now, it’s the foundation for the NFL’s second-ranked defense, so it certainly seems like the group has a chance to get there. And as for restoring an old tradition, Shazier said to me that while “we respect everything those guys did,” these Steelers are “not trying to replicate anyone else, because if you’re replicating someone else, that means you’re trying to be someone else. We want to be our own great defense, we want people to talk about us on our own. And that’s what we’re doing, guys are stepping up and making plays when we need them. We’re trying to shut out everybody that we play.”

It’s worth mentioning, too, that third-year coordinator Keith Butler’s done a nice job developing these guys. On Thursday night against the Titans, Butler’s mentor, ex-Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, will be on the other sideline.

2. Jerry vs. the NFL: Where things stand. Let’s recap and take stock of the dispute among Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, the league office and the six-man compensation committee made up of chairman Arthur Blank (Atlanta), Clark Hunt (Kansas City), Robert Kraft (New England), John Mara (Giants), Bob McNair (Houston) and Art Rooney (Pittsburgh).

The sides have said their piece—including the letter, which The MMQB obtained, that the committee’s outside counsel sent to Jones. The next move centers on whether Jones actually files the papers that he had lawyer David Boies draw up and sues the six owners on the committee. While we wait to see where that goes, there are four things we can point out that have affected the way the situation has been colored over the last few days.

First, there’s Jones’ contention, made on Dallas radio, that the committee has kept owners not serving on the committee in the dark on Roger Goodell’s contract extension. I’m told that committee members “resent the idea” they feel Jones is advancing, that they’ve been trying to pull the wool over their peers’ eyes. Second, Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter apologized for his criticism of the NFL and the anthem protestors, and there are at least some who believe that Jones may have pulled him back after playing a role in his initial stance. Third, the point Jones has made publicly in asking why the rush to finalize Goodell’s deal has at least sparked some conversation. Goodell’s deal expires at the end of the 2018 league year, which is in March 2019, so the league and commissioner are working now with 16 months to spare. The NFL would like to have this finished so it can move forward with game-planning for looming labor and broadcast negotiations, with all those deals expiring in the first three years of the next decade. Whether that’s really necessary, it appears, is a matter of debate.

And fourth, there’s the letter. It asked that the Cowboys owner cease circulating “a document that Mr. Jones personally knows to be outdated” and “drop his misguided litigation threats and media campaign to undermine the committee’s mandate.” The letter ended with this from the committee, via counsel: “We urge Mr. Jones to support the committee deliberations, not attempt to sabotage them. Your client’s antics, whatever the motivation, are damaging the league and reflect conduct detrimental to the league’s best interest.”

The language there is important because “conduct detrimental” is what the NFL would charge Jones with it they were trying to sanction him. That, of course, is fighting fire with fire. And that all brings us back to where we started. Will Jerry sue? Stay tuned.

NFL Owners Push Back Against Jerry Jones

3. The Bills’ quarterback move is not about where they are, but where they’re going. Buffalo’s decision to bench Tyrod Taylor certainly caught me off guard Wednesday. It caught the quarterback’s teammates by (minor) surprise, too. So why now? Well, rookie Nate Peterman, a fifth-round pick out of Pitt, had shown consistent improvement, and the coaching staff had the information it needed on Taylor to move forward. To figure out the rest, you have to go back to the offseason.

It was then that first-year coach Sean McDermott and his staff expressed a desire to get their own evaluation of Taylor, which led to the renegotiation of the quarterback’s contract. They now have that evaluation, which is largely the same as the one the since-departed scouting staff had—Taylor is an average starting quarterback, one who struggled in the intermediate passing game (particularly between the hashes), and one whom an opponent could stop completely if it could shut down the Bills’ running game. That’s no shot at Taylor. It’s more an illustration of where the ceiling was perceived to be by the old staff, and how those guys felt he limited the team long-term. And that assessment was one the new staff clearly came to agree with.

Meanwhile, with the decision to move forward with the Taylor, the Bills did two things: 1) They built capital to give themselves the ability to be aggressive in getting a franchise quarterback in the 2018 draft (they have two picks in each of the first three rounds in April); and 2) They took a flier on a member of the 2017 class that they spent a fifth-round pick on. And it’s not like the Bills felt like they stole Peterman. My understanding is they had a fifth-round grade on him ahead of the draft, which is to say they got him right where they valued him. But he has shown enough progress that it makes sense for Buffalo to get a look at him in games before they put together their strategy for stocking the position for 2018. And that look starts Sunday in Los Angeles against the Chargers.

4. Patriots benefit from who they are. Watching players in Green Bay rush to the defense of the team’s medical staff, and in particular Dr. Pat McKenzie, should tell you all you need to know about how they felt about Martellus Bennett’s final days as a Packer. Players normally don’t get in other players’ business when it comes to injuries, and trust between teams’ medical staffs and players isn’t always high. But the Packers on social media, and later to the news media, have made their feelings loudly and unanimously clear.

“We all got a good laugh from it,” said veteran linebacker Clay Matthews to the Green Bay press. “It is what it is. Martellus is in their locker room now and not here anymore. … You know what, I think everybody knows the story there, we don’t need to talk about it much more. Like I said, we’re focused on the guys in the locker room, but it’s an interesting story that’ll probably be talked about for a while.”

So it seems the consensus in Green Bay is that Bennett bent the truth to smear a doctor who’s worked with the Packers for 27 seasons. Whether that’s what actually happened or not, though, the Patriots pulled on a lever they’ve found well-worn over the years. Three years ago LeGarrette Blount quit on the Steelers and was cut, and the Patriots scooped him off the scrap heap when he was radioactive to just about everyone else, largely because they knew how he’d fit in their program. He wound up rushing for 148 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC title game two months later. Same deal here. Bennett informed teams he needed surgery, and that plus all the baggage he’s carried from a personality standpoint (there’s a reason he’s been on five teams) meant there was little interest around the league when he hit the waiver wire. That created the opening for him to slip through the cracks to the Patriots, 30th in the waiver order at the time. Those Patriots—who, again, knew how an available player with problems would fit in their framework—were waiting with open arms.

As a result, they now get serious Rob Gronkowski insurance at less than a half-million dollars for the rest of the year (plus some bonus money). Bennett, in the process, didn’t do much to burnish an already checkered reputation. But with a shot at another ring, I’d bet he doesn’t care much about that.

Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We all love to look at every decision football teams make with a big-picture focus, and that especially goes for those involving quarterbacks. And so it’s been easy, as the Vikings’ quarterback situation has been dissected, to wonder where it’s going post-2017, with the contracts of all three guys on the roster up after this year and two of them carrying first-round investments made by the team.

The one guy the Vikings bought low on, Case Keenum, is the starter and it is a reminder that the teams don’t always think big picture all the time. No, teams are normally way more worried about what’s right in front of them, and that hit me again when I talked to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur about the decision to stick with Keenum over the now-healthy Teddy Bridgewater on Wednesday.

“At this point, Case is our quarterback moving forward, and we’re going,” Shurmur said, in a matter-of-fact way. “I’m not trying to break any news here. We’re just trying to go out and fight and win a game. I certainly understand everybody’s interest in the situation. We don’t overthink it.”

The Vikings sure didn’t. They’re 7-2. They have a defense stocked with in-their-prime studs. Bridgewater dressed Sunday for the first time since shredding his knee in August 2016. Sam Bradford went on injured reserve. Keenum threw for 302 yards and four touchdown passes against the Redskins on Sunday.

So that part is simple. Keenum starts.

Case Keenum Show: Vikings Offense Explodes With Teddy Bridgewater Waiting in Wings

Shurmur maintained that, for him, the rest isn’t complicated, but for the franchise it will be. The Vikings will likely have to pick between Bradford and Bridgewater after the season, and if they were to walk away from both (unlikely), that would leave them back in the quarterbacking wilderness. The prospect of that kind of decision, for any team, is daunting.

But that’s for later. For now, Shurmur’s job is to manage the situation as it is, and Keenum has proven to be plenty good enough. His 92.7 passer rating is higher than Bridgewater’s were in 2014 or ’15, and not far off from what Bradford posted last fall. Just as important, the three guys—they all want to play (obviously, Bradford can’t now)—aren’t making the potential for week-to-week awkwardness an issue.

“It’s what I’m used to from the quarterback room,” Shurmur said. “Typically you have two, three, four guys in there that are courageous, tough guys that have been starters most of their life. They’re put in a room where they’re fighting like heck to be the starter. But when it’s deemed that they’re not, then they’re doing everything they can to help the starter. And I think we’ve got a room full of great guys.”

That doesn’t mean Shurmur hasn’t changed some things. Keenum didn’t get many reps with the starters in the spring and summer, and he’d never played for Shurmur before signing with Minnesota in March. That meant, too, that Shurmur had to come to a comfort level with who Keenum was, so he could adjust the way he calls a game to what the fifth-year pro does best.

Shurmur explains that he’s taken off-the-rack plays, as well as what the Vikings run specifically against certain opponents, and plucked what works best for Keenum, the same way he would for Bradford or Bridgewater. That Keenum got his shot as an injury replacement, and may not be the long-term answer, is irrelevant as Shurmur sees it.

“Quite frankly, we may go out and win a game or lose a game, but we don’t blink when it comes to whoever’s in there,” Shurmur says. “We expect them to play well. That’s why we don’t focus on it. I think it’s a little bit degrading to the players that go in if you say, OK, now we have injuries so we’re not going to be as good. So we keep that out of our daily conversation. We just go out and play.

“And we as coaches try to give them the best stuff to work with.”

Shurmur kept emphasizing the underlying point during our talk, and that was that Keenum wouldn’t be in there, or even on the team, if the Vikings didn’t fully trust him to handle what’s on his plate today. And as for tomorrow, that can wait.

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