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Cowboys hot topic: The season is over with Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension - unless it isn’t

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Things certainly haven’t gotten any easier, but maybe surrender is a bit premature.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Is he the only path to success for the Cowboys?
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

At the moment, it looks like Ezekiel Elliott and the NFLPA have lost in their attempt to keep him on the field through the 2017 NFL season. While there have been some very unexpected turns in this from the very beginning, the chances of putting off his six-game suspension now are seen as extremely slim. The NFLPA is filing another appeal, it just is not believed to have much probability of reversing things again. The conclusion of many is that the season is now over for the Dallas Cowboys without Zeke on the field.

There is no question that Elliott was key in the two most recent wins for Dallas. His role was especially big in the rain-soaked victory in Washington. Now the Cowboys do not even know who is going to be the lead back, or if they will have to resort to a running-back-by-committee approach with Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden, and Rod Smith. And with the Philadelphia Eagles adding Jay Ajayi to bolster the roster that is already leading the NFC in the chase for the playoffs, some have thrown in the towel.

There are certainly some reasons for pessimism. The Cowboys’ offense is designed to run through Elliott (pun intended). Their overall game plan is to control the ball and the clock with the ground game, not putting too much on the shoulders of Dak Prescott (despite the brilliant start to his career, he is still just in his second season and still growing as a quarterback), and to limit the exposure of a defense that remains a work in progress, particularly with the extensive makeover of the secondary. Without Elliott, who is clearly supremely talented at what he does on the field, that becomes much harder. Add in the difficulties the offensive line has had in replacing two of last year’s starters, and the prospect of moving forward with the backups at running back does indeed seem daunting. The two losses against the Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers now loom especially large. Those came when Elliott was not yet performing at peak efficiency and put the Cowboys in a hole they now have a much harder time digging out of. Meanwhile, as much as we hate to admit it, the Eagles look more and more like the real class of the NFC. Dallas has to get through them to contend for the NFC East, or even a wild card spot. Gloom is certainly understandable.

But losing top players is a simple fact of life in the NFL. Many teams see stars go down with injury, and suspensions happen as well. Some teams are not able to overcome those, but others do. The Cowboys now have to show us which way they are going to go.

It could be either. After all, they have done both the past couple of seasons.

We all saw what happened when Tony Romo was hurt in 2015. The team had no viable backup plan in place and paid the price. But the following year, they stumbled into a solution for Romo’s preseason injury in Prescott (along with Elliott), and stunned the NFL with an incredible turnaround, going from 4-12 to 13-3 in the regular season.

And in this case, the Cowboys most definitely have worked on having a backup plan for Elliott’s suspension. Morris has flashed at times, and has a history of playing better when he gets more carries to get into rhythm. McFadden, who has been inactive in all games so far this season, was able to muster over 1,000 yards in 2015 despite missing several games to start the year. That was against teams that mostly had no real worries about the Dallas passing attack. Rod Smith has shown some ability to get the tough yards, something that may be important for a team that has converted every one of the fourth downs it has elected to go for this year.

More importantly, the offensive line may finally be getting its act together just when it is needed the most. The Chaz Green experiment at left guard has apparently been abandoned, and not a moment too soon. Jonathan Cooper is still not playing at the level of Ron Leary, but he is beginning to be more of an asset than a liability. La’el Collins is also still trying to get his game together, but it is hard to argue that he is playing much worse than Doug Free was with his injury issues at the end of his career. Zack Martin had some uncharacteristic struggles in the first few games of 2017, but seems to have straightened them out of late. And Travis Frederick has continued to be one of the best centers in the league, if not the cream of the crop. The biggest worry for the Cowboys may be Tyron Smith and his ongoing back issues, which the team is now managing with rest on Wednesdays. He has also been called for more holding infractions than normal, but against Washington, there was at least one call that was highly questionable, as video review showed it was just about a textbook example of how you are supposed to do the job under the current interpretations of the rules.

If the line is indeed getting back to its bullying ways, then the challenge for the backup running backs is going to be more manageable.

Then there is Prescott. He is clearly going to be a key for the team with Elliott out. He certainly did all he needed to do under miserable conditions last Sunday. With rain the entire game, he once again protected the ball and made enough key throws to ensure the win. Now the team has four of its next five game indoors, so weather will not be a factor in those. He and his receivers will have to step it up, but based on his short career, he has that ability. He just has to get the job done.

The special teams are something that usually is not talked about much, but they were crucial in the Washington win. A forced fumble on a kickoff and a blocked field goal that led to a short touchdown were the highlights, but the solid performance by fill-in place kicker Mike Nugent and Chris Jones doing his typical excellent job punting also were very important.

Then there is the surprising strength of the defense: A suddenly ferocious pass rush. Dallas already has 25 sacks on the season, on track for over 50 if they keep it up. They are fifth in the league in sacks, and have not one but two of the coveted “war daddies” in Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving. Lawrence leads the league in sacks and is already into double digits, and Irving has an excellent chance of joining him in getting 10 or more. Even better, Tyrone Crawford also has a decent chance of getting there as well, with four sacks on the season including one in each of the last three games. Nothing gives a defense a chance to make a real impact on a game more than sacks and turnovers, and the pass rush has been getting both this season. That is something we have not seen in recent years. The run defense and the secondary still are showing some weaknesses, but the pass rush may be able to make up for those. Especially if the offense can generate points the way it has in the past three games.

It’s not going to be easy. The challenges should not be minimized in any way. But there are still ways that the Cowboys can continue to win games and make the playoffs. It is not time to give up yet.