The truth about Ezekiel Elliott’s worth to the Dallas Cowboys was told, as it turns out, by team owner Jerry Jones as he stood inside the visitor’s locker room at FedEx Field, surrounded by reporters, after a victory over the Washington Redskins late last month.
The NFL Players Association had kept Elliott’s six-game suspension by the league on hold to that point, and there were reasons for the Cowboys, at the time, to hope that the second-year running back might remain eligible to play all season. The Cowboys still could dream that day of being among the NFC’s top contenders.
“Zeke is critical to our [team],” Jones said then. “As you can see, he’s a valued member — ‘member’ is almost trite to say. We need him.”
Indeed they do.
And no one, it has become clear, needs him more than second-year Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
Elliott, after he and the NFLPA were beaten in court and abandoned their legal challenge, now has served three games of his suspension. There are three games to go before he is eligible to return to the Cowboys’ lineup for a Christmas Eve game at home against the Seattle Seahawks.
It is beginning to look like the Cowboys’ playoff hopes might be extinguished by then.
The Cowboys were supposed to be able to find a way to hold things together until Elliott returned. They had veteran running backs Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden to fill in. They had an offensive line regarded as the league’s best. They had reliable pass catchers Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten. And they had Prescott, the quarterback who teamed with Elliott last season when both were rookies to carry the Cowboys to the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs before suffering a stunning loss at home to the Green Bay Packers in a conference semifinal.
It hasn’t mattered. It all has come unraveled without Elliott.
The Cowboys lost Thursday to the Los Angeles Chargers, 28-6, in their annual Thanksgiving game at home. They have gone 0-3 since Elliott began serving his suspension and have been outscored 92-22 in those games. They have yet to score 10 points in a game without Elliott.
This should have been a time for Prescott to rise to the occasion and carry his Elliott-less team. Instead, he has looked far more like a rookie chosen in the fourth round of the draft than he ever did last season, when he actually was.
Prescott threw two interceptions Thursday, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He has no touchdown passes and five interceptions in the three games during Elliott’s suspension.
Prescott was sacked only twice Thursday by the Chargers after being sacked a total of 12 times over the previous two games. That two-game sack barrage came without standout left tackle Tyron Smith in the lineup with a groin injury. Smith played Thursday, but the Cowboys lost another key offensive lineman, right guard Zack Martin, when he suffered a concussion during the second quarter.
It is evident at this point that Prescott and the rest of the Dallas offense are not good enough to thrive without Elliott. It’s not only about the rushing yards churned out by Elliott. It’s about what the threat of Elliott as a runner meant to Prescott and the Cowboys’ wide receivers. Opposing pass rushers had to respect any play-action fake to Elliott, buying Prescott time to throw. Opposing defenses had to devote manpower near the line of scrimmage to attempt to slow down Elliott. That created favorable matchups for Prescott’s receivers.
The Cowboys’ record dropped to 5-6. Winning the division is out of the question, with the first-place Philadelphia Eagles at 9-1. Securing even a wild-card spot increasingly is becoming a long shot.
Prescott thrived last season under very favorable circumstances, playing behind a great offensive line and with a terrific running back. He looked very much on his way to becoming an elite quarterback. There is no reason to doubt that he will return to being a good quarterback once Elliott returns. But now it certainly does appear that he might need Elliott alongside him to play at something resembling a Pro Bowl level.
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