Ezekiel Elliott is now confirmed to be playing this Sunday in the Dallas Cowboys' season opener against the New York Giants. It feels like a small victory as the war between Elliott and the NFL league office rages on over his suspension for a domestic violence accusation. However, could the end result be a net loss for the Cowboys?
Unless Elliott is granted his injunction by a federal judge, which we should know within the next few days, then his full six-game suspension would begin starting in Week 2 of the NFL season. That would mean Zeke misses the Cowboys' Week 8 game, which is on the road against Washington (Cowboys have their bye on Week 6).
At home versus the Giants, or on the road versus Washington; which division rivalry game would you rather have Elliott for?
There are many ways to look at this question. Last year, the Cowboys got swept by the Giants but then swept Washington. That alone may sell you on wanting Elliott to help you against New York. Still, whether wins or losses, all of these games were close:
- Week 1 – Giants 20, Cowboys 19
- Week 2 – Cowboys 27, Washington 23
- Week 12 – Cowboys 31, Washington 26
- Week 14 – Giants 10, Cowboys 7
With only four and five-point wins against Washington, it's arguable that not having Zeke may have swung those games the other way. Washington should be improved on defense this year, adding Zach Brown at middle linebacker and former Cowboy Terrell McClain to their defensive line. An 8-8 team last year, the Cowboys' greatest rival is not going to be a pushover in 2017.
In two games against Washington, Cowboys running backs had 205 yards and four touchdowns on 50 carries (4.1 average). In the two games against the Giants, they had 196 yards and one touchdown on 52 carries (3.77 average). It's a difference, but perhaps not as big as you might have assumed. The general perception was that New York handled the Cowboys' offense better than anyone last year, but clearly Washington wasn't far behind.
Another basic element to consider is a home game versus an away game. Being able to dominate time-of-possession and pummel the opposing defense with the run is even more valuable on the road than at home. You can take the excitement, and thus the crowd, out of the game. It's always good to be able to lean on your most reliable strengths in a hostile environment.
The backup running backs also need to be considered. Dallas will be leaning on two veterans, 30-year-old Darren McFadden and 28-year-old Alfred Morris, during Ezekiel Elliott's absence. Common sense says that legs will be fresher in Week One than in Week Eight. Would McFadden be more effective this Sunday against the Giants than seven weeks later in Washington?
Another factor at work is the status of Giants' star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. He is still not practicing after an ankle injury two weeks ago and his availability for Week One is in question. If Beckham, the focal point of the Giants offense, misses the game then could the Cowboys have afforded to be without Elliott?
You can take this in a lot of different directions, but clearly it's not as simple as you may have thought initially. Cowboys fans are obviously happy that Zeke will be playing Sunday, hungry for a win against the Giants after those three-straight losses. But they don't hand out Lombardi Trophies, or even NFC East titles, for just those games. The big picture is what really matters.
One way to look at this is the “bird in hand” argument. Right now, Week 1, we know who's coming to town with these Giants. What's more, there's a chance that Odell Beckham won't be with them. Maybe getting this win right here, right now, will serve us better in the long run.
Who knows what injuries may do by Week 8, and just how good or bad that Washington team may be by mid-October? Naturally, the same goes for the Cowboys. If Kellen Moore or Cooper Rush are playing in that Week 8 game, who's in at running back might be irrelevant to the outcome.
Hindsight will be the ultimate judge here, but it's still interesting to consider. The possibility that Ezekiel Elliott won't miss a single game in 2017 is still on the table, which would obviously make this a moot discussion. But in a league where a single game can decide a playoff spot or home field advantage, these scenarios and ripple effects are worth looking at.