The Dallas Cowboys know they will lose something from their offense whenever Ezekiel Elliott ends up serving his suspension, but just how they make up for that is in the details. The Cowboys run game is an essential part of their game strategy, not just on offense, but an effective run game also benefits a suspect defense.
The obvious answer is to turn to their talented stable of backup running backs to pick up the slack.
"We have great running backs," Prescott said. "Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris. Those guys have had a lot of success in this league for a long time. It's just an opportunity for them to come in and get more reps in that time off."
It’s true the Cowboys will be able to handle missing their star running back better than most teams in the league. Both McFadden and Morris have 1,000 yard seasons under their belt. The Cowboys have made a point of collecting running backs since the run game is so important to them and injury can come at any time. They are in good shape, but are under no illusion that the skillset that Elliott has can be easily replaced.
The other additional option the Cowboys have in the running game is Dak Prescott. He was the Cowboys second leading rusher last year. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time.
The last time a Cowboys quarterback finished second on the team in rushing came in 1989 when Troy Aikman had 302 yards on 38 carries. The same Aikman who became a Hall of Famer and never had more than 125 yards rushing in a season after his rookie year.
Of course, a lot of that Aikman yardage likely came on scrambles as he was running for his life. The ‘89 Cowboys were a bad football team. In contrast, Prescott’s yardage came primarily from carefully orchestrated zone-reads and other intended runs that utilized his excellent athletic skills.
The Cowboys aren’t likely to load up anymore runs on Prescott, though. They like having the option there, but sometimes more as a decoy or deterrent for the defense. The defense has to account for the possibility, and that can open up other things.
"It's certainly a challenge for the defense. We know that from the defensive side of the ball when we face quarterbacks who are able to do that," [Jason] Garrett said. "It just adds another guy. It's another guy you have to defend. Oftentimes you can look at defensive football versus offensive football as 11 versus 10. You have an extra guy on defense. You add that element of the quarterback running, now we balance it all back up. Whether it's being responsible for Dak or contain or just that guy, it can be a challenge. It was effective for us when we used it last year. It's effective for teams all around the league."
The downside of a running quarterback is the same as it has ever been - injury. So the Cowboys are not going to increase that load because they are missing their star running back.
"He's going to run anyway because of his game, his mobility, but I think you're going to lean on the side of picking your times when you do it," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of Prescott. "I think if you do it a lot it certainly can be a little bit of a distraction to what you're trying to do. That's why you have runners. But when a quarterback has that element, it's an advantage. So I think the key to quarterbacks running is they know what kind of a run we're trying to get. If they can’t get 3 yards and we want 4 yards, 3 yards is OK, too. Don't take hits. That's my approach anyway."
Prescott understands this, and knows that relying on their quality running backs is the best course of action.
"I'll leave [calling for him to run] up to the coaches," Prescott said. "I mean, it's not necessarily in my hands to create more game plans for me running, but if I had to guess, I would say I wouldn't think so just in the fact I said we have the running backs who have done it in this league for a long time, so it's not a panic here."