With Elliott out, Cowboys' backfield goes from one-man band to committee
FRISCO, Texas -- In the back of their minds the Dallas Cowboys had to know this was coming with Ezekiel Elliott.
With the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday vacating the injunction that had allowed the Dallas Cowboys running back to play, Elliott is facing the six-game suspension that was handed down by the NFL in August for violating the personal conduct policy. And the Cowboys are facing life as a sub-.500 team trying to win games without their top offensive threat until the Nov. 30 meeting against the Washington Redskins.
Replacing Elliott will not be easy.
In last Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, he appeared to find his stride with 13 carries for 85 yards in the fourth quarter. He had 31 yards on 16 carries in the first three quarters, but Elliott -- and maybe more importantly the coaches -- found a number of runs that equaled success.
In the first four games and three quarters of the fifth game, the Cowboys’ running game was running into a wall. Their hope was the defenses would eventually wear down, but it did not happen enough.
Without Elliott, the Cowboys can’t rely on Alfred Morris, Rod Smith and Darren McFadden to wear down a defense in the same manner.
Singularly, they don’t have Elliott’s combination of speed, power, elusiveness and strength. Collectively, they might.
The Cowboys will have to go from a one-man band in the running game -- Elliott has 105 of the 115 carries by Dallas running backs so far -- to a committee.
Morris has eight carries for 87 yards but 70 came on one run against the Los Angeles Rams. He has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit, but those were back in 2012-14 with the Washington Redskins. Since signing with the Cowboys as a free agent last year, he has had more than seven carries in a game just once. He is not much of a threat in the passing game.
McFadden has been inactive for the first five games, which has been a surprise because he was groomed in the summer to be Elliott’s replacement if the suspension had taken effect immediately. He was limited to three games a year ago because of a broken elbow, but in 2015 he had five 100-yard games and two games with more than 90 yards after becoming the Cowboys’ lead back six games into the season. He is most equipped, largely because of his experience, to handle multiple roles.
Smith is the wild card. He might be best suited to handle the full-time job but he has just four carries for 13 yards in his career. He has caught three passes for 28 yards. A year ago at this time, he was a fullback for the Cowboys.
Smith, who was a teammate of Elliott’s at Ohio State, runs with power, has decent speed and can catch the ball effectively. But he has never done it before.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will have to do something he hasn’t done since coming to Dallas in 2014: mix different running backs throughout a game.
In 2014, DeMarco Murray carried 392 times to lead the NFL with 1,845 yards. Backup running back Joseph Randle's 51 carries were the next highest total. In 2015, McFadden finished fourth in the NFL with 1,089 yards on 239 carries. Randle had 76 carries, which were second-most, but he did not have a carry after the sixth game. Last year, Elliott had 322 carries on his way to leading the league with 1,631 yards. Morris’ 69 carries were second most by a runner.
The Cowboys' running game has not looked like what anybody expected coming into the season. Elliott has 393 yards on 105 carries, good for 3.7 yards a carry.
As they go forward likely without Elliott, the running game still won't look like what anybody expected entering the season -- but for entirely different reasons.