The continuing string of headlines about Ezekiel Elliott are casting a pall of gloom over fans of the Dallas Cowboys. With the still unfolding reports of a possible physical altercation between him and another person at a Dallas nightspot, it is feeling more than likely that he is going to be facing some kind of suspension to start the season.
Take heart. At the moment, it looks like the suspension will not be a long one (although Elliott is not by any means helping his case, by all appearances). And the Cowboys have another strength that should mitigate that, and keep them firmly in contention to repeat as the NFC East champion: They have the best quarterback situation in the division.
Look at where they stand there, compared to the rest of their rivals.
Dak Prescott was a revelation in his rookie year, and by all reports, he has advanced his game as the team heads into training camp. He was masterful last year in play-action, and very good in the short-to-medium passing game. His ability to run the occasional read-option play complicates things for the defense. And the running game is not going to disappear if Elliott is indeed unavailable at the start of the season. Remember, the Cowboys got a 1,000 yard season out of Darren McFadden in 2015. That was despite him not starting the entire year, and the team rolling out Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore as quarterback. While no one is going to pretend McFadden is as capable as Elliott, he still can provide a credible running threat.
And that is just until Zeke gets back. Although things can certainly change, most expectations are that any suspension would be for one or two games. That still leaves most of the season for Elliott to re-establish himself as the premier running back in the game. He is likely to come back with a large chip on his shoulder. And given the reports on how tight the Dallas locker room is, that may be shared by some of his teammates. Particularly that offensive line. While the Cowboys have to solve the questions at right tackle and left guard, they have a very good chance to still be one of the best offensive lines in the league, given the foundation they still have in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. Dallas may be slowed a little out of the gate, but look for things to right themselves very quickly.
The New York Giants bring back Eli Manning as their quarterback. He certainly has the skins on the wall, but he is aging and has never been very mobile. More importantly, there is a reason people say “Eli gonna Eli”. He has a propensity for throwing interceptions at a high rate, and often at the worst time. And one area where the Giants did not do much to improve in the offseason was the offensive line. Every week, opponents are going to be attacking that line to pressure Manning. If they can get to him with regularity, he is not likely to change his performance for the better.
Washington is making headlines of the worst kind with Kirk Cousins. They failed to reach a long-term deal with him, meaning he will play under the franchise tag, and he is widely expected to leave the team in free agency after this year, or 2018 at the latest. The team simply low-balled him on their contract offer.
Guys, Luck got $87M guaranteed for life of his deal. Carr got $70M. Skins wanted to give Cousins $57M guaranteed. It's pretty clear.— Mike Jones (@MikeJonesWaPo) July 17, 2017
Whatever you may think personally of Cousins as a quarterback, he still has shown he is capable of playing well and winning games. And no position is more important to an NFL team than QB. Now the management in Washington seems to be resorting to a public relations war to try and put the blame on Cousins for the negotiations falling apart. That does not bode well for their season. And it leaves them with no long-term answers at the position.
The Philadelphia Eagles believe they found their quarterback of the future last year in Carson Wentz. They certainly paid enough draft capital for him in the trade to take him second overall in the 2016 NFL draft. But while Prescott set the league on its ear with his stellar play, Wentz was . . . not so good. While Prescott was playing far more like a seasoned veteran last year, Wentz, after a hot start, rapidly came to look like what he was - a rookie trying to grasp the pro game. According to the analysis at Football Outsiders, he was 28th in the league using their Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement metric. In their other ways of breaking performance down, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, he was 27th. And if you prefer the more traditional way of looking at things, his quarterback rating had him at 25th in the league. Similarly, Pro Football Focus had him graded as the 20th best quarterback in the league by the end of the year, after he had such an impressive showing in the first few games.
While excuses abound among the Eagles fan base for why he struggled, there is at least some preliminary evidence that he is just not as good as they hoped. The team did do a lot to try and help him, particularly by signing wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, but the question really is how much Wentz can improve in reading defenses and making the right throws.
One thing is clear. The rest of the NFC East has some uncertainty about just how well their quarterbacks will perform this season. The only thing the Cowboys seem to have to worry about is the prospect of a “sophomore slump” for Prescott. Nothing indicates that such a decline is likely.
And nothing is as important for an NFL team on game day as the play of the quarterback. Maybe Manning has one more year of high-level play left in him. Perhaps Cousins’ professionalism and desire to get a big payday somewhere will keep things from going off the rails. Wentz may make huge strides in his second year (funny how “sophomore slumps” are only talked about when players do well). Right now, however, the Cowboys look to have a much better quarterback situation than any of the other NFC East teams. That could well carry them through anther successful season.