The NFL issued a long-awaited ruling Friday when it handed down a six-game suspension to Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, punishment resulting from violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. The ruling comes after a year-long investigation by the league, which determined “that there is substantial and persuasive evidence supporting a finding that [Elliott] engaged in physical violence” against Tiffany Thompson, his former girlfriend, “on multiple occasions.” Elliott was never arrested or charged in connection with the accusations of domestic violence. Through his agent, Elliott released a statement that maintained his innocence and indicated he will appeal the ruling. Unless there’s a reversal or a reduction, the suspension could hinder the Cowboys’ ability to contend in a competitive NFC East.
The Cowboys won just four games in 2015. Last year, behind Elliott, fellow rookie Dak Prescott, and their talented offensive line, they became one of the most improved teams in the league, managing a 13-3 finish, a divisional title, and a playoff berth. Prescott delivered what some consider the best season ever for a rookie passer, as he threw for 3,667 yards at 8.0 yards per attempt, with a 67.8 percent completion rate, a 104.9 quarterback rating, 23 touchdowns, and just four interceptions. Elliott, meanwhile, led the league in rushing with 1,639 yards and 15 scores.
The calculus that teams faced against Dallas was complex: Imagine trying to get off of or avoid the blocks of one of the league’s best offensive lines and to wrap up and tackle one of the league’s most elusive running backs—then having to turn around the next play and watch Prescott run a play-action fake and throw darts downfield to Dez Bryant or Cole Beasley. The rookie signal-caller showed incredible poise in the pocket, threw confidently on third downs, and used his legs to keep defenses off-balance. Together, Prescott and Elliott, behind that line, were a puzzle that defenses just couldn’t solve, and the rookies relied upon one another for success. If not for Prescott’s ability to throw downfield, teams would’ve sold out by stacking the box even more to stop Elliott. And without Elliott in the backfield, Prescott likely wouldn’t have been nearly as efficient—he’d have faced more complex reads and found fewer open players downfield. But without Elliott on the field in the first six games this season, the conundrum that teams face every week in scheming to stop both playmakers dissipates.
The Cowboys still boast some quality running back depth behind Elliott, so it’s not like their run production will vanish entirely until Elliott returns to the field. Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris are both veterans with 1,000-yard seasons on their résumés. But neither offers the elusiveness and home run ability that last year’s no. 4 overall pick possesses.
That puts the onus, and the pressure, on Prescott to carry the offense. Teams have now had a full offseason to study Prescott and game plan how to stop him, so we’re going to quickly find out just how much the QB’s efficiency drops without Elliott on the field next to him.
The Cowboys’ schedule exacerbates Prescott’s challenge: In the first month of the season, they face three of the top four teams in Football Outsiders’ defensive pass DVOA from last year in the Giants, Broncos, and Cardinals. The Rams, the Cowboys’ Week 4 opponent, finished 20th in that metric, but have plenty of talented players on their defense and should improve under the guidance of new coordinator Wade Phillips. At the very least, Prescott faces the prospect of making a good percentage of his throws in that game with Aaron Donald bearing down on him. Taken together, those first four games alone have the potential to all but sink Dallas's playoff hopes. From 1990 to 2015, just 36.1 percent of teams that started the year 2-2 made it to the playoffs, and that drops to 14.2 percent for teams that started 1-3. In the NFL’s history, only one team has started the season 0-4 and gone on to make the postseason.
The Elliott suspension, that tough opening schedule, an exodus of key defensive players this offseason, the suspension of talented pass rusher David Irving, and a possible suspension of defensive back Nolan Carroll following his DUI arrest in May make a slow start to the season look almost inevitable for Dallas. New England managed to mitigate the loss of its future Hall of Fame quarterback for the first four games of last season due to the Deflategate suspension and still start the year 3-1, but the Patriots did so with big plays on defense and special teams, quality performances by their backup passers, and a little bit of ingenuity from unrivaled tactician Bill Belichick. But not every team is the Patriots: The Cowboys don’t have that much balance, the defense is average, and without Elliott, a foundational run game that carried the team to the playoffs last year reverts to, at best, a good one. That may not be enough.