The announcement that a U.S. district court judge in Texas has granted Ezekiel Elliott a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, likely allowing the Dallas Cowboys running back to play the entire season as the legal process plays out, is monumental news on the eve of the first Sunday of the 2017 campaign. As the messy court battles involving Elliott, the NFLPA, and the NFL continue — with the league presumably planning to appeal in an effort to restore Elliott’s six-game suspension — the NFL’s disciplinary process, handling of alleged domestic violence incidents, and ability to independently investigate cases like Elliott’s will continue to come into question. The ruling’s on-field consequences, though, are less muddled.
As I wrote in the final installment of my 2017 NFL Power Rankings on Thursday, Elliott’s absence was going to require the Cowboys to find a different path to the success they enjoyed a year ago, when they finished the regular season 13-3 and won the NFC East. With Elliott back on the field, the ground game will go from a unit that would have been able to manufacture consistent yardage to one that will rack it up at will after finishing second in rushing DVOA in 2016. After losing Doug Free to retirement and Ronald Leary to the Broncos this offseason, the Cowboys will lose some continuity up front, but the Dallas line will still be among the best in football if it stays healthy, and that lack of continuity will matter even less with Elliott in the backfield. A gifted back can do as much for his blockers as his blockers can do for him. Understanding how to set up certain plays, draw certain defenders, and hesitate in certain places makes it easier for your teammates to play offensive line, and that’s the type of ability that Elliott possesses.
While the line will surely breathe easier with Elliott behind it, the biggest on-field beneficiary of Friday’s ruling is second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. Elliott’s impending absence meant that the Cowboys would have needed more from Prescott than they’d ever asked of him as a rookie. No quarterback in the league played in more advantageous circumstances in 2016.
Dallas’s running game regularly ensured that the offense stayed ahead of the sticks and rarely had to deal with challenging down-and-distance scenarios. With Elliott active, that should be the case once again. It’s reasonable to believe that Prescott will take another step forward as a quarterback in his second season; he likely would have been able to handle the complicated elements that come with third-and-8 more smoothly than he could have a year ago regardless of the personnel around him. But there’s a big difference between naturally progressing as a player and needing to.
The prospect of regression always looms for an offense that found the type of success that Dallas did in 2016, especially since they play the league’s toughest schedule in 2017, according to Football Outsiders. But Elliott’s presence and Prescott’s probable improvement give the Cowboys a better chance of staving off the odds and fielding the type of game-sealing unit they did last season. If Dallas can match (or even exceed) its efficiency from a season ago, it will help compensate for a defensive depth chart laden with uncertainty thanks to a youthful pass rush and secondary.
If Elliott plays all season and the Cowboys keep their entire stable of offensive talents in place, it will take the worst possible iteration of the defense to remove Dallas from the league’s upper tier. The Cowboys already figured to contend with Elliott suspended for six weeks. Now, they again look like an elite NFC team. And we’ve seen where that level of play can take them.