Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Should Cowboys prepare to open season without Ezekiel Elliott?

As the Cowboys prepare to leave for California this week, remind me again about the health of Darren McFadden.

That thought was probably on the minds of many Cowboys fans early Monday as they learned of an incident at a Dallas bar involving running back Ezekiel Elliott, a player already under league investigation for previous accusations of domestic violence. Charges were not filed in those incidents.

It's too soon to say with any certainty what happened at Clutch, a bar where the Yelp reviewers tell you right away that the bouncers are just "itching for a fight." Elliott, who was involved in an altercation there Sunday night, has been accused by witnesses of throwing a punch. Police said they are investigating but did not mention Elliott in a statement released Monday morning.

This can only add to the possibility of the Cowboys opening the season without the NFL's leading rusher from 2016. What seemed until recently a long shot now ranks as a likelihood.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Elliott was given a report from the NFL a week ago, detailing the year-long investigation into the other incidents. Elliott was supposed to respond to the league this week before any ruling involving a suspension could be made.

Trouble has dogged Elliott ever since the Cowboys picked him fourth in the 2016 draft, but it has mostly seemed like the smallest stuff. Each time — whether being photographed in a legal marijuana store or for an incident involving a woman he knew at a St. Patrick's Day parade — Elliott has told the media that he has learned his lesson and that he knows he needs to lead a more quiet life as a star in the NFL.

And each time, something else comes along.

If Elliott ends up landing a suspension, he will add to a growing list for a team trying to defend its NFC East title against its top competition, the Giants, in prime time on Sept. 10. The defense is without pass rusher David Irving for four games. Defensive end Randy Gregory seems to be on perpetual suspension for failed drug tests. Linebacker Damien Wilson is being investigated for his arrest at Toyota Stadium this month where he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon (his truck) and for brandishing an AR-15.

Third-round pick Jourdan Lewis is scheduled to stand trial next week for a domestic violence charge from his time at the University of Michigan. He has a "settlement conference" scheduled this week. Lewis is not under NFL investigation.

So it has been assumed that the offense would carry a defense — already busy trying to incorporate rookies into its regular rotation — but how much does that change if Elliott is out for any length of time?

McFadden ran for 1,089 yards including more than 800 yards in his 10 starts in 2015, sparking the belief that it doesn't take an elite back to succeed behind the Cowboys' offensive line. Last year McFadden's playing time virtually disappeared when Elliott arrived. McFadden gained 87 yards on 24 carries and his yards per carry dropped from 4.6 to 3.6 from the previous season.

Whether it's McFadden, Alfred Morris or someone behind Door No. 3, the Cowboys' depth chart at running back has been made much more interesting by Elliott's inability to keep his name out of trouble.

It seemed like a playful shot last week when Dak Prescott told Sports Illustrated that Elliott needs to spend more time working for sponsors or charity like he does and less time posing naked for ESPN the Magazine.

Taking his clothes off is probably the least of Zeke's problems right now.

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