ARLINGTON, Tex. — Rarely short on words, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he didn’t want to talk much about Ezekiel Elliott. Until, of course, he did.
Despite the best efforts of the NFL and to the chagrin of the Giants, the embattled second-year running back was on the field Sunday night, helping his team make a statement as big as any on the season’s opening weekend. When it was finally over and the Cowboys were celebrating a decisive 19-3 win over a division rival, Jones three times said Elliott’s spot on the active roster was “inspirational” to the rest of the team.
“Every person who’s a part of the Cowboys was lifted by that decision,” he said, referring to a federal judge granting an injunction just two days earlier that keeps Elliott eligible to play while his legal challenge of his six-game suspension is pending.
Jones knows as well as anyone that the Cowboys’ entire season just might have hinged on that judge’s decision. With Elliott, the Cowboys are a Super Bowl contender, certainly the envy of the NFC East. And without him? Well, the Cowboys hope they don’t have to find out. In Sunday’s win, Elliott tallied 104 yards on 24 carries and had another 36 yards five catches.
“I saw a player that when he was in there, [the offense] looked impressive,” Jones said, “and when anyone else was in there it didn’t look as impressive.”
For his part, Elliott, speaking to the media Sunday night for the first time since June, wasn’t dissecting legal strategy or weighing in on the NFL’s maneuvering to this point.
“It just feels good to be out here with these boys. It’s definitely been a tough last 14 months,” he said. “At times, it’s gotten so hard. You start to lose faith. But just being able to come in and be with these boys every day has kept me focused and made me not give up and keep going.”
When Jones or the Cowboys are talking about Elliott’s complicated case — which stems from allegations of domestic abuse and the NFL’s contention that Elliott violated the league’s personal conduct policy — they might be arguing about fairness, procedural details or legal maneuvering, but they’re also talking about their season. The Cowboys are the rare NFL team whose fate could be decided as much by a federal judge as any player, coach or coordinator.
Just consider the alternative and what the Dallas offense is without Elliott. On Sunday, only one other tailback had a single carry. Alfred Morris, in fact, had four touches — and finished with a grand total of one yard. Twice he failed to reach the line of scrimmage. Simply put, without Elliott, quarterback Dak Prescott shoulders a much bigger load and there’s little hope for a balanced attack.
“We miss Zeke if we don’t have him,” Jones said. “That’s all I can say. It’s inspirational for this team to know that we have a chance to have him out there with them.”
The Cowboys opened the season beating a Giants team that didn’t have its best playmaker — receiver Odell Beckham — or a functioning offensive line. But Dallas dominated in a way that made the Giants barely noticeable, background characters in what could stand as the league’s biggest season-long drama. With Elliott and all the other tools available in his belt, Prescott was 24-for-39 passing for 268 yards and a touchdown, leading his unit to 392 yards of offense.
“When we’re out there, it’s like nothing can stop us,” Elliott said of his quarterback and friend.
The season is early — and Dallas’s schedule gets a lot tougher, starting with next Sunday’s game at Denver — but the Cowboys’ biggest obstacle could loom off the field. The league could still appeal the judge’s ruling and push to have the suspension upheld. But there’s no guarantee that could happen in a timely manner and impact the current season.
After a federal judge overturned his four-game suspension in the Deflategate case, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played all of the 2015 season. And then after the NFL prevailed on its appeal and the suspension was reinstated, Brady missed the first four games of last season.
Elliott declined on Sunday night to talk about the fairness of the proceedings, any lessons he takes from the process or the possibility of a league appeal. “It is what it is,” he said. “I’ve kind of just stopped worrying about it because it’s really not in my hands at this point.”
Similarly, Jones declined to say how confident he is that he’ll have Elliott for the entire regular season.
“There are a lot of nuances that are going to go on there,” he said, “both legally and procedurally.”
The Cowboys could easily follow the Patriots’ motivational blueprint: Get angry and then take it out each week on a new opponent. A year ago, after Brady returned to the lineup, the Patriots won 11 of 12 regular-season games and then breezed through the playoffs, eventually toppling the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys and their owner were certainly upset by the league’s decision and feel a sense of vindication in having Elliott in the lineup. But Jones wouldn’t say the Cowboys are taking the field with any sort of chip on their shoulders.
“We really do support Zeke,” he said late Sunday night.
That’s probably not too surprising. After all, for Jones and his team, everything is riding this season on Elliott and his ability to stay in the lineup. [/restrict]