The 2016 Dallas Cowboys were very good for one major reason: Their running game was outstanding.
We’ve come to expect a great ground game from the Cowboys ever since they added Zack Martin to Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick in 2014, but putting the wildly talented Elliott behind that offensive line last year took it to another level.
While Elliott didn’t take home Rookie of the Year honors thanks to his teammate, Dak Prescott, he still blew away defenses with 5.1 yards per carry, a total of 1,994 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns.
Now they will be without Elliott for the start of this season.
Elliott's suspension stems from an incident more than a year ago, when an ex-girlfriend accused Elliott of domestic violence in Columbus, Ohio.
In September the Columbus City Attorney's office said it would not pursue any charges against Elliott because of "conflicting and inconsistent information", but the NFL has it's own rulebook, and commissioner Rodger Goodell can punish anyone for anything.
While legal authorities came to the conclusion that Elliott's accuser was not credible, with multiple witnesses claiming the woman yelled that she would "ruin his career", the NFL still believe after their own investigation that Elliott violated the personal conduct policy.
The immediate response among Cowboys fans is one of injustice and panic. After all, Elliott was drawing comparisons to the great Emmitt Smith last year, and his importance to the success of the team was paramount. However, I'm here to say that the Cowboys will be just fine without him for six games, and here's why.
The offensive line Cerberus
The three-headed hound of Hades is a good way to describe Smith, Frederick, and Martin.
Between them they have missed just three games in the last three years (All from Tyron Smith this year). With a competent quarterback behind them to keep the defense from overplaying the run, they have finished no lower than 3rd in rushing DVOA. In 2015 when there was a calamity of Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore back there they still managed to drag the ground game to 9th in DVOA.
In other words, they are very, very, VERY good at creating running lanes and moving defenders.
I'm not saying that I could get 1,000 yards rushing behind them, but Laurence Maroney is one of the worst running backs I've ever seen play in the NFL and I'm pretty sure that he could.
While continuity is king on the offensive line and they will have to fit a new left guard and right tackle in this year, one of those players is likely to be La'el Collins, who was last seen murdering Seahawks in 2015.
A deep stable
It's almost like the Cowboys thought something like this might happen...
In the offseason they re-signed Darren McFadden, who rushed for 1,089 yards as the main man in 2015 for the Cowboys, and added Ronnie Hillman too. They also have Alfred Morris who added 243 yards and two scores in some brief relief work for Elliott last season.
Those three backs should be more than enough to carry the ball through the pile of bodies the offensive line will make and keep the chains moving. The Cowboys averaged 4.8 yards a carry as a team in 2016, but they picked up 4.6 a carry in 2015 before Elliott was even a thought in Jason Garrett's head.
The passing game can more than keep them going.
While Elliott was a big contributor in the passing game last year, bringing in 32 of 39 targets for 363 yards and a score, Dak Prescott has shown he can keep the offense going.
In his surprising rookie year Prescott completed a ridiculous 67.8% of his passes for 3,667 yards (8.0 yards per attempt), and racked up 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
It is worth mentioning that a lot of Prescott's game was a surprise to defensive coordinators and that he had a lot of success in using play-action, but given that the running game has proven to be strong regardless of who is carrying the ball, those play-action passes should still be available, and with a full offseason as "the guy" his understanding of a playbook more tailored to his talents should be far better than it was last year.
Schedule & expected record
|1||vs New York Giants|
|2||@ Denver Broncos|
|3||@ Arizona Cardinals|
|4||vs Los Angeles Rams|
|5||vs Green Bay Packers|
|7||@ San Francisco 49ers|
The Rams and 49ers games are going to be cake-walks with or without Elliott, and the other four games were going to be incredibly hard anyway.
The Giants did the double over Dallas last year, and Green Bay knocked them out in the playoffs. The defenses they face in the first three weeks can all test the offensive line and potentially shut down Dez Bryant. I wouldn't have been surprised if even with Elliott the Cowboys started 0-3.
That possibility is a lot more likely without him, but it's far from disastrous to their season given that they, at worst, should be 2-4 without him and then they get a fresh and angry Elliott back to tear through Washington and Philadelphia twice and the Chargers. That should be five wins, and then they only need to take two from Chiefs, Raiders, Giants, Seahawks, and Falcons. Easily attainable if they don't have an injury crisis.
2017 was always going to be tough, with the likelihood of repeating their 13-3 season unlikely, but with the foundation of their offense intact, all they lack is the spark of Elliott, they still have the rest. Don't panic Cowboys fans.
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