OXNARD, Calif. — The rise of the Dallas Cowboys last season came thanks in large part to the exploits of their prized rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott. And the team’s hopes to take things a step further this season, reaching — and perhaps winning — a Super Bowl, are pinned to the belief that Prescott and Elliott are built-to-last superstars who will provide a suitably spectacular Year 2 encore.
So what happens if the Cowboys are forced to open the season without Elliott?
It is an unsavory question for the franchise, given owner Jerry Jones’s contention that Elliott should not be suspended by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. But it is an issue with which the Cowboys potentially must come to grips.
Jones said here Saturday at the team’s training camp that Elliott had met with league officials within the past month as part of the NFL’s investigative process. That means, according to Jones, that “everything is in place” for the league to make a disciplinary decision about Elliott, who has been under investigation since an incident last year involving his then-girlfriend.
Elliott did not face criminal charges but still could be disciplined by the league. ESPN reported in recent weeks that Elliott and his representatives are braced for a suspension of possibly one to two games.
The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl last season despite playing without quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the regular season while he served his Deflategate suspension. The Patriots went 3-1 in those games, success that bolstered the value of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and reinforced the X’s-and-O’s wizardry of Coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Belichick and McDaniels found a way to get one victory with rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback after Garoppolo was hurt.
For the Cowboys to thrive without Elliott, a greater burden would fall on Prescott and on the team’s defense. The team’s powerful offensive line would have to play its part in keeping the running game productive without Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing last season as a rookie.
The Cowboys’ first two games of the regular season are at home against the New York Giants and at Denver. Both ranked in the top 10 last season in total defense.
Dallas added veteran running back Ronnie Hillman to the roster last week and already had Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris.
McFadden has had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons in the NFL, one for the Oakland Raiders in 2010 and one for the Cowboys in 2015. Morris had three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Washington Redskins between 2012 and 2014.
“I think we’ve got depth at the running back position,” Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ executive vice president and one of Jerry Jones’s sons, said Sunday. “McFadden rushed for [more than 1,000] yards . . . the year before we had Zeke. Then, of course, we have Alfred Morris as well who’s a proven 1,000-yard rusher. And then you just look to what’s surrounding, the supporting cast around that running back position.
“We’ve got, we think, obviously one of the top, if not the top, offensive lines in the game. We’ve got a really solid receiving corps with Dez [Bryant] and Cole [Beasley] and Terrance [Williams], with some good depth in behind that. You look at an all-pro, Hall of Famer like Jason Witten who’s going to be in that huddle. I just feel very confident that if there is a suspension — we hope there’s not — that we’ll certainly be able to, to use a Bill Parcells term, hold the fort and be successful with or without Zeke.”
Morris said over the weekend that nothing has changed about the training camp approach of the Cowboys’ other running backs because of the uncertainty over Elliott’s playing status.
“I think it’s the same,” Morris said. “We’re veterans. We’re mature guys. Our mind-set is always like we’re starters. We’re one play away from being a starter. You never know what’s going to happen in this business. You always prepare. We always approach every day as if we’re the guy. I feel regardless of what’s going on, it doesn’t affect how we approach every day. We approach every day as if we’re the starter and we’re getting ready to carry the load.”
Morris signed with the Cowboys before last season but was an afterthought in Dallas. The former workhorse runner for the Redskins had only 69 carries in his first season for the Cowboys.
“The way it started the beginning of the year, it ended up totally different,” Morris said. “The last few games, I was inactive. The playoff game, I was inactive, which in my career I never thought I would be inactive. But things happen. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.
“I don’t know what my role will look like this year. But I can make it very hard for them to not utilize me. So I come out every day and work hard to do my best to make it hard for them. . . . Will it happen? I don’t know. But I can just control what I can control. That’s my attitude.”
… AND TEN
“The NFL, the Cowboys, the game was very inspirational,” Jones said over the weekend. “I know that I have done better than what I would have been by being a part of the NFL and the Cowboys. It brought out the absolute very best that I could have ever even dreamed that I could be. It did it because I’ve just always been so excited and wanted to really not limit any aspect of what our team can be, what the league can be, and take it down every road that I had a chance to. It’s caused me to be more imaginative. It’s caused me to be more aggressive. . . . It’s caused me to be more passionate. It’s caused me to more liberated in what I’ll try. All of that has inspired me.”
Jones does not envision himself slowing down anytime soon.
“We need to win,” he said. “We need to continue to build on this foundation, this base that we’ve got right now. We can’t rest on our laurels as a team. I, for sure, can’t rest on any laurels in my position. And so when I look at some of the opportunities ahead in the future as not only for the team but for the NFL, I see a brighter future. I see more opportunities than I did 29 years ago. And I want to be a part of it.”
Stephen Jones said Sunday that he believes his father has his speech for the ceremony just about ready to go.
“I’ve talked to him about it,” the younger Jones said. “I haven’t heard it. I don’t know if he’s going to practice. He’s not one of those, I think, that practices. A lot of it’s pure emotion. He told me, ‘I’ve limited all my stories.’ I think he’s got his house in order for it. He’s certainly fired up for it.”
It stands to reason that Jerry Jones will find something to say.
Prescott grew up as a Cowboys fan and said Sunday that the Jerry Jones he has come to know is different than the version he saw from afar.
“Just from the outside, I didn’t realize how personable he is,” the second-year quarterback said. “It’s with a lot of guys on this team. It’s the majority of this team. He wants to know everybody on this team as a person and not the number. He wants to go under that and get to know you. I think my relationship growing over the year with Jerry has allowed me to understand what you see from the outside is not what you get with Jerry.”
2. Jones on Kaepernick … Jerry Jones also was asked Saturday about the ongoing unemployment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the owner took the view that Kaepernick is not being blackballed for his political stance last season.
“I know this: I feel that every team in the National Football League makes every decision on players to win the ballgame,” Jones said. “And so if someone is not on a team, I would say that for whatever the reason, the decision-makers on all 32 teams are trying to pick them to win. And so I accept that. And if they’re not out there, that’s why they’re not out there.”
“It’s different,” Witten said. “For 14 years, we were together. So that’s different. I’m proud of how he handled it. I know he’s excited for the next chapter. Over the years, 15 years here, you have a lot of good friends come and go. As I reflect — and really, this year was the first year that I kind of reflected — Doug Free, DeMarcus Ware and then, of course, Tony all retiring.
“I have an immense amount of pride, and it really puts a smile on my face thinking that the game of football provided relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life. Tony is certainly one of those that I’ll have.”
Romo opted for the CBS broadcast booth over continuing to play. Stephen Jones said the Cowboys never closed the door completely on Romo returning to Dallas until Romo closed the door on playing.
“Never ruled it out,” Jones said. “Obviously it was going to be a stretch. I know Tony, as competitive as he is, wouldn’t really want to come back knowing he was going to be a backup. I think that’s ultimately why he made the choice he did. I don’t think he necessarily wanted to play for anybody else.”
Not even as the starter for a Super Bowl contender in Houston or Denver?
“I didn’t know for sure what he would do because those are good teams. . . . I think he just made the decision, ‘Hey, if I’m going to play, I’m going to play in Dallas.’ … We never ruled out Tony until he made that decision, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to the booth this year,’ ” Stephen Jones said.
So, too, was Prescott’s father, Nathaniel, who’d surprised his son by showing up Friday on the team’s off day. Saturday was Dak Prescott’s 24th birthday.
“It was a surprise,” the quarterback said. “I didn’t really know, and I usually don’t get surprised. So they pulled that one off. I congratulated him on that one. . . . I was excited more for him, just him being a longtime Cowboys fan, the history of being out here in Oxnard, just coming out here and getting to watch this practice.”
Fans sang happy birthday to Prescott during the practice.
“I had a good day,” he said. “I had practice.”
Elliott had 32 catches last season as a rookie.
“I think Zeke can get more catches this year without him playing more plays,” Prescott said. “I think that his ability with the ball in his hands is valuable to this offense. In our passing game, if the defense gives us soft coverages, just get it to him and let him do what’s best. You see we’ve kind of given it to him out here a bunch already. It’s just the fact of we’re doing what the defense is giving us. It’s not necessarily that we’re calling plays extra to get Zeke the ball.”
All of the players chosen in the opening round of this year’s NFL draft were signed by Saturday, when wide receiver Corey Davis struck his deal with the Tennessee Titans. That came soon after the Raiders signed cornerback Gareon Conley and the 49ers struck a deal with defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.
The rookie compensation system put in place by the 2011 labor deal between the league and the players’ union was designed not only to curb rookies’ salaries but also to streamline the negotiating process to avoid contract disputes resulting in rookies showing up late to training camps. It has worked, for the most part. The contract staredown between Bosa and the Chargers that kept the then-rookie pass rusher out of training camp last year until late August has been the very, very rare exception.
Of course, given how well Bosa played last season as a rookie, the question becomes: Does it really matter that much?
7. Urschel’s retirement … No one should be the least bit surprised by the retirement of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel at age 26.
Was there any player in the league with a more promising future outside football than Urschel, who spent offseasons pursuing his doctorate in mathematics at MIT?
Yes, Urschel loved football. He made that clear.
But he also made it clear that he loves math, and his ability in that field is what promises to bring him professional success over the long term.
Urschel sustained a concussion in 2015, reportedly affecting his ability to perform complex math problems temporarily. His retirement last week came two days after the release of a study that found evidence of the degenerative brain disease CTE in 110 of 111 of the brains of former NFL players studied.
It was stunning when a successful young player such as 49ers linebacker Chris Borland walked away from the sport in 2015.
In Urschel’s case, two years later, it should be far from stunning.
8. Ravens’ QB situation … The quarterback situation in Baltimore is interesting with starter Joe Flacco sidelined by a back issue, backup Ryan Mallett generating headlines with his practice-field interceptions and Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III have been mentioned as possible additions.
It really depends on how confident the Ravens truly are about the soundness of Flacco’s back. They and Flacco say the injury is no big deal. If that indeed is the case, the urgency for having a backup capable of thriving as a more-than-temporary starter decreases.
But if there are significant behind-the-scenes worries about Flacco, signing Kaepernick would be the sensible move. He had 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions last season for the 49ers. He makes more sense as a starter than Mallett or Griffin. He played for Jim Harbaugh, the brother of Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, in San Francisco. He would give the Ravens a better chance to keep a significant injury to Flacco from sabotaging their season entirely.
9. RG3 and the Chargers … Griffin worked out last week for the Chargers. The workout was said to have gone well. But instead of signing Griffin to back up Philip Rivers, the Chargers traded for Cardale Jones.
That has produced speculation that Griffin’s workout and the account of it going well might have been merely a ploy for the Chargers to gain leverage in the trade talks for Jones. Griffin may or may not have been a viable candidate for the Chargers. It remains to be seen whether he is a serious candidate for the Ravens. There still is reason to wonder whether he will get a third NFL chance after his stints with the Redskins and Cleveland Browns.
10. Bell and the Steelers … There is little reason to fret about Le’Veon Bell not reporting on time to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp. He has not signed his franchise-player deal and therefore is not required to be there, and it’s highly doubtful that he needs a full training camp to be ready for the regular season.
Still, the Steelers made Bell a lucrative and, in the minds of some observers, fair contract offer before failing to sign him to a long-term deal by the July 17 deadline for franchise-tagged players. It can be questioned whether Bell should have accepted that offer. The two sides are expected to resume negotiations after the season on a prospective long-term deal, and Bell showing up at camp on time might have been viewed favorably by the organization. File that away and see whether it eventually matters, even a little bit, looking back.