As it stands, Ezekiel Elliott is set to miss the first six games of the Dallas Cowboys’ season. While an appeal may bring that number down, Dallas have to prepare for his extended absence to open the year.
Elliott may be one of the best running backs in the league and certainly one of the Cowboys’ best players, but Dallas are equipped to, at the very least, survive Elliott’s ban thanks to their assortment of weapons on offence.
When it comes to running the ball, few teams have been better or more efficient over the past three years, with the Cowboys ranking second in the NFL in total rushing yards and third in yards per attempt twice during that span.
In those prolific seasons, the workhorse running backs were Elliott (2016) and DeMarco Murray (2014), studs who are considering two of the best at their position. That’s made it difficult to discern how much credit for Dallas’ running game should go to the ball-carriers and how much should go to the offensive line.
After leaving Dallas for Philadelphia in 2015, Murray looked a shell of himself behind a shaky Eagle’s offensive line, totaling 702 yards on the ground on 193 attempts. He rebounded in a major way, however, with Tennessee last season as he racked up 1,287 yards on 293 carries.
Darren McFadden, on the other hand, had all of one season topping 1,000 rushing yards in his career before joining Dallas in 2015, when he ran for 1,089 yards on 239 carries. The Cowboys weren’t dominant that year running the ball like they were with Murray the season prior, but they still rushed for 4.6 yards per carry and 1,890 yards total – marks that ranked them fifth and ninth in the league, respectively.
So, the answer to the question of who deserves more credit for Dallas’ ground game likely is somewhere in the middle. The offensive line has been the bedrock of the team, but talented runners have extracted the most out of it. Just like running backs need their blockers to open up holes, offensive lines need ball-carriers to find those holes and not leave meat on the bone.
Elliott rarely left any meat on the bone last season, finishing with 1,631 yards on 322 carries – a 5.1 yards per attempt clip and the third-most total rushing yards for a rookie in NFL history. Coupled with his efficiency was big-play ability as he tied with Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy for 22 runs of 15-plus yards to pace the league.
It’s hard to be any better as a rookie and Elliott deservedly received the second-highest overall grade for running backs with 88.8 by Pro Football Focus, with Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell the only player ahead of him (91.9).
McFadden, who’s in line to receive a majority of the carries, will be hard-pressed to come close to Elliott’s gaudy numbers, but proved in 2015 he’s a more-than-capable stopgap.
Dallas also have Alfred Morris, who was Elliott before Elliott when he rushed for 1,613 yards on 335 attempts in his rookie campaign back in 2012. His effectiveness has diminished every season since, but the 28-year-old could still prove useful in small stretches.
A look at the Dallas backfield without Ezekiel Elliott pic.twitter.com/qE7sH9b8h3— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 11, 2017
The Cowboys’ offensive line, meanwhile, remains stacked with three All-Pros in left tackle Tyron Smith, centre Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin, but right tackle Doug Free has retired and left guard Ronald Leary is now in Denver. That means La’el Collins will move to right tackle and Jonathan Cooper will most likely take over at left guard, which leaves Dallas with question marks at those positions.
As such, Pro Football Focus pegs the Cowboys’ offensive line as the ninth best unit entering the season, which could put more onus on their running backs to help with the heavy lifting.
Speaking of more onus, quarterback Dak Prescott suddenly has added responsibility to shoulder in his sophomore season.
The beauty of Prescott’s situation last year was that he wasn’t asked to do too much, thanks to the dominant running game to lean on.
But Prescott was still more than a game manager, finishing with a 104.9 passer rating and tossing just four interceptions.
He’ll have to raise his game to another level if Dallas hope to match or better their 12 wins from last season and while defences will be better prepared against the second-year signal-caller, he should continue to improve.
Elliott’s suspension is a blow and certainly concerning off the field – there’s no doubting that. On the field though, the Cowboys can manage to stay afloat.