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Cowboys Have Increasing Uncertainty at Running Back

Jess Haynie

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Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Last week's Hall of Fame game gave Cowboys fans some good looks at running backs Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, assumed to be competing for the third spot on the RB depth chat. Also, new comments from Jerry Jones have made Ezekiel Elliott's future tougher to predict. Throw in a brief but uninspiring performance from Darren McFadden and we have arguably more confusion now at RB than we did a week ago.

Jerry Jones, Ezekiel Elliott

Jerry Jones and Ezekiel Elliott (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Let's start at the top; Ezekiel Elliott's possible suspension has been hanging over the Cowboys all summer. During the Hall of Fame festivities, Jerry Jones commented on Zeke's situation in a concerning way.

"There are a couple of issues that might or might not fall — and that’s going to be up to the league to the decide — under the behavioral guidelines."

It's not the most direct comment ever, which Jerry's rarely are, but it does speak to the likelihood that the league is considering more with Elliott than just the domestic violence allegation. Whether it's the St. Patrick's Day parade shirt-lifting, the trip to the marijuana shop in Seattle, a speeding ticket for 100 mph, or his proximity to whatever happened at that nightclub, Zeke may be headed for a wrist-slapping, preventative disciplinary measure from Roger Goodell.

However, not long after those comments, Jerry went on to say that he did not expect any kind of suspension for Elliott. It's hard to know if that's supportive or even wishful thinking, or just an objective appraisal from the Cowboys owner. Either way, many now think a one or two-game suspension is very possible if Zeke's entire body of work is being considered.

Darren McFadden

RB Darren McFadden

With three carries for a total loss of six yards, Darren McFadden's preseason started with a brief whimper. As we'll get to in a minute, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith had far better success with their carries that night. However, before you go handing McFadden's job to one of them, there are two key points to keep in mind.

McFadden's three carries came at the start of the game when the Cowboys offense looked the most befuddled. The offensive line created nothing for him to use. Also, let's be real; three carries is hardly a solid sample size. One long run can change the way your entire night is perceived, much like how Morris benefited from his 25-yarder. Without it, he had six carries for 17 yards.

It's important to remember that McFadden's value isn't just in carrying the ball. He's an exceptional backfield blocker and receiver, making him an ideal third-down option. With Ezekiel Elliott as the workhorse, McFadden can go in and be more useful in various spots; more of a Swiss Army knife player than Morris. He can even return a kickoff in a pinch.

Rod Smith

RB Rod Smith

Still, there's no denying that Alfred Morris and Rod Smith were the standout running backs in the game. Morris 25-yard run showed both athleticism and power, and on several other carries he did a nice job of reading blocks quickly before hitting the right lane. Both players had to make something out of nothing a few times.

With his 18 carries, Rod Smith got the biggest workload and shined consistently. His final stat line of 64 yards on 18 carries is not a great average, but Smith was clearly doing the best with what second and third-string offensive linemen could give him. He showed good improvisational ability, agility, and also power throughout the night. He even had three catches for 25 yards.

There were already reports that Rod Smith was threatening Morris' roster spot coming out of training camp and this game showed you why. Along with effective running, Rod is a solid special teams player and even has the experience from playing a little fullback last year. He is a more justifiable number-three RB than a guy who doesn't give you all of the extra things. Plus, cutting Morris saves you $1.6 million off the salary cap

~ ~ ~

Obviously, Ezekiel Elliott is the team's workhorse back for whatever number of games he is allowed to play. At this point, there's little reason to think that Darren McFadden will fall out of the number-two spot, let alone off the roster completely. A suspension will likely allow the Cowboys to delay their decision between Alfred Morris and Rod Smith; it is doubtful that will keep four running backs given Zeke's projected workload.

With four games and a lot of practices between now and final cuts, there is plenty of time for assumptions and projections to change. As last week proved, it doesn't take much for us to start rethinking things. The picture may get even murkier before it finally clears up.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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7 Comments
  • Randy Martin

    I can’t think of any player ever suspended for their “body of work.” And yet that has been discussed. Jerry has been very specific on the issue of domestic violence and having reviewed everything says it doesn’t exist. Now we know sometimes it’s hard to take everything he says at face value. So let’s look at the other issues. First off can we just stop talking about getting ticketed for doing 100 in a 70? Who among the male population hadn’t taken the car out on the freeway and cleaned the pipes out? The difference here is he got caught. Are traffic violations covered under the personal conduct policy? I think not unless it includes other charges not noted. While he was wrong for his behavior on St.Patrick’s Day had that happened in New Orleans on Mardi Gras would we be talking about it. I’m pretty sure Gronk’s wild cruise featured much worse…we just have no photos. And we don’t have a precedent for this so not sure how that will be viewed by the league. The recent nightclub incident was closed after a short investigation due to lack of co-operation. Unless there is any conclusive evidence by the NFL such as a video of Zeke throwing the punch or a large check going from Zeke to the DJ in the days after I’m not sure the NFL is in a position to impose any suspension for that incident. As for the trip to the marina and shop….bad look but suspendable? No record of a purchase made or a failed test so if a citizen can’t walk into a legal place of business then something is wrong. That doesn’t mean it’s wise because perception is reality. I just wish whatever is going to happen, happens soon because I’m tired of reading about it. I did notice that Zeke was playing with his phone or something in his lap during JJ’s HOF speech while all other players had all eyes on Jerry. Maybe we should add that to the list.

    • Jess Haynie

      That’s the think with Zeke; you can isolate any of his issues and poke holes in them. But the accumulation of issues and question marks, with the shadow of domestic violence involved, is why he’s now in hotter water than he really should be. It may be harsh, but not really unfair.

      I don’t think he’s going to get suspended, but he needs to start living life with the recognition of how thin the ice has become.

  • Russ_Te

    Fail a drug screen, do a criminal offense, the league has to step in with suspensions to guard the brand.

    For the rest of Elliott’s behavioral issues, suspension should be a last resort. He can be warned & fined first. There is a fine line between preserving the brand and serving as 24/7 chaperone. The NFL needs to avoid the latter IMO. Let the teams deal internally with the stupid stuff a 22-year old does.

    McFadden looked uninspired but you figure that changes for regular season. Besides, why bang him up right now? He & Zeke should get a few reps, give the rest to those battling for a roster spot.

    • Jess Haynie

      I agree that it’s not up to the league to become a surrogate father. Unfortunately for Zeke, the DV accusation paints everything else with a different brush. That’s the reality of being an NFL player in a post-Ray Rice world.

  • John Williams

    One week of the preseason doesn’t change anything for me.

    I would want to continue to see Alfred Morris as an effective back before being willing to keep him on the roster. In my opinion, I think he’s auditioning mostly for other teams. I don’t think he does enough to get rid of McFadden or Smith. If anything they might be forced to carry four running backs and a full back if he continues to play well. But given that they want to feed Zeke, it seems carrying 4 running backs is a luxury. Especially with what Rod smith has been showing in camp so far.

    • Jess Haynie

      What scares me with Morris is that he looked good all of the 2016 preseason and even in some limited touches early in September, but his effectiveness clearly waned over time. McFadden came off NFI list last year and showed way more chemistry in his few touches. It would take a pretty dramatic difference in these next four games for me to feel confident enough about Morris to even question DMC’s job status.

      I think Rod Smith has almost secured a roster spot. Not only does he look good and give you special teams value, but he’s also the only guy who is under contract in 2018. If he keeps this up, he could probably be RB2 next year.

      • John Williams

        Totally agree. I just don’t see them being willing to bring four tail backs to the 53. Just seems that Morris is an odd man out. They might have been a bit hasty signing him in the first place if they intended on drafting Zeke last year. Was a solid insurance policy.

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Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018

Jess Haynie

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Amari Cooper

For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.

Dallas Cowboys on Twitter

After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote

As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.

Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.

Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.

His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!



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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys Playoff Scenarios: Week 15 Impact Games

Jess Haynie

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Making Sense of the "Garrett Guys" Behind Cowboys Dez Bryant Release

It's hard to believe that we're looking at the Dallas Cowboys potentially clinching the NFC East this week, but that's how dramatic the turnaround has been over the last five games. Week 15 could lock Dallas into the playoffs and give them a lot of freedom over their final two games.

If the season ended today, these would be your NFC playoff standings:

  1. New Orleans Saints (11-2)
  2. Los Angeles Rams (11-2)
  3. Chicago Bears (9-4)
  4. Dallas Cowboys (8-5)
  5. Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
  6. Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1)
    ----------------------------------
  7. Carolina Panthers (6-7)
  8. Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
  9. Washington Redskins (6-7)

TIEBREAKERS

  • The Cowboys lost to Seattle earlier this year, but still remain the 4th seed as a division winner over a wild card team.
  • The Panthers are ahead of the Eagles thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker.
  • The Eagles are ahead of the Redskins thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker. They play each other again in Week 17.
  • The Redskins beat the Panthers earlier this year, but their loss to Philadelphia within their own division negates that tiebreaker.

In truth, there's not much intrigue left for the Cowboys in this regular season. One win gives them the NFC East, and it would take the Saints or Rams dropping all three of their remaining games for Dallas to have a shot at a top-two seed.

So, barring the nearly impossible, Dallas is locked into either the 3rd or 4th seed. They will host one of the Wild Card teams in the first round of the playoffs.

The biggest thing to watch now is how the seeding shakes among the bottom four playoff teams. The Seahawks seem a cut above the likes of Minnesota, Carolina, or one of our NFC East friends, so avoiding them in the first round would be lovely.

Here are this week's games involving the NFC playoff contenders:

Dallas Cowboys @ Indianapolis Colts

We've already discussed what the Cowboys need to do, so let's talk about the Colts. Not only do they have home field advantage this week, but they are fighting for their playoff lives.

Indianapolis is one of four teams with a 7-6 record battling for the final Wild Card spot in the AFC playoffs. The Broncos are also in the mix at 6-7, giving none of these teams any cushion for losing.

Dallas has its own incentive to win, though. If they want to avoid Seattle in the first round, they probably need to take the #3 seed from the Chicago Bears. They need to keep winning and hope for the Bears to drop a game or two.

Ultimately, getting into the playoffs and starting at home is a huge reward. But anything that can help make the road a little easier is worth pursuing. It's no time to rest on your laurels.

Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears

As we just discussed, we'd like to see Chicago drop a few games to give Dallas a shot at the #3 seed. This week isn't the worst opportunity, with Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay still not completely eliminated from playoff contention.

Expecting much from the Packers here is unwise. They've had a coaching change and appear to be in a state of organizational disarray. But they still have Rodgers, and crazy things always happens in rivalry games.

So while these are two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions, you never know what could happen given the variable elements. By all means, root for the Cheeseheads.

Miami Dolphins @ Minnesota Vikings

Your rooting interest here comes down to a simple question; who do you prefer to play among that last bunch of Wild Card teams? Who does Dallas match up best against between the Vikings, Panthers, and Eagles?

I think we'd all agree that we don't want to see the Eagles a third time. Beating a team three times in one year is tough to do, and especially given how close last week's meeting was.

The Panthers beat Dallas in the season opener, but that was in Carolina and well before the Cowboys were playing at a high level. A second meeting could go very differently, especially with the recent slumping by the Panthers.

Both Carolina and Minnesota are struggling, with one on a five-game losing streak and the latter having lost their last two. The Vikings just fired their offensive coordinator, so neither of these teams appear to be going into the postseason with any real momentum.

At this point, I'd say it's a toss-up between the Panthers and Vikings. Both are much preferable to seeing the Eagles again, so I would just keep rooting for both to win. In either case, they knock out Philadelphia.

We'll reassess the threat level of Carolina and Minnesota as playoff opponents in a few weeks.

Washington Redskins @ Jacksonville Jaguars

I didn't mention the Redskins among those last three teams because they may not win another game this year. Their QB situation is so bad that even the Jaguars look good by comparison.

Granted, Jacksonville is lousy right now. Washington might be able to go down there and get a win, but neither team has anything to play for now. This one may come down to whether or not the Jaguars have gone into tank mode.

Seattle Seahawks @ San Francisco 49ers

Seattle just walloped the Niners 43-16 a couple of weeks ago, and changing venues is unlikely to make that much difference. The Seahawks are a legit NFC contender and San Francisco is already thinking about the offseason. A Seattle loss would be great, but it ain't happening this week.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Los Angeles Rams

While catching the Rams and getting a top-two seed would be great, it's barely plausible. The far more concrete benefit here is seeing the Eagles lose and getting them further away from a possible Wild Card spot.

In fact, an Eagles' loss this week would give Dallas the NFC East even if the Cowboys fall in  Indianapolis. That's not the way we want to win the division, but you take what you can get.

With the breaking news that Carson Wentz is unlikely to play this week with a back injury, you'd generally think this suits the Cowboys' interests. But Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles is still the backup in Philadelphia, so is anything really for certain?

New Orleans Saints @ Carolina Panthers

We have every reason to root for Carolina here. For one, it helps the Panthers stay ahead of the Eagles in the Wild Card race. Also, it brings the Saints one loss closer to possibly being caught by Dallas. A Saints win doesn't really benefit us all.



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Ezekiel Elliott has Huge Day vs Eagles Thanks to Receiving Prowess

John Williams

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Ezekiel Elliott has Huge Day vs Eagles Thanks to Receiving Prowess

The Dallas Cowboys came away with a huge win against their division rival Philadelphia Eagles, putting them in a commanding position in the NFC East. They're up two games in the division and one of the more underrated story lines from the victory is Ezekiel Elliott's game. He had a huge day that no one is talking about.

Elliott had 28 carries for 113 yards and then caught 12 passes on 13 targets en route to his big performance in the 29-23 win over the Eagles. That's probably the quietest 40 touch, 192 total yard game you'll ever hear about. And yet, that's where we are. Please read that stat line again, because in all of our talk about Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and the defense, Ezekiel Elliott's stat line is absolutely ridiculous.

The receiving element that Elliott is providing the biggest difference to the offense this season. He's been a huge asset to Dak Prescott in the passing game as both a primary target and a check down option in the short part of the field. If Elliott isn't showing that he's the best running back in the league, with what he's doing with a broke down offensive line, then people will never give him the credit he's due.

For the last three years, the Dallas Cowboys and their fan base has known what an elite player the Cowboys have in Elliott. He's easily one of the best runners in the NFL, but if you talk to the general NFL fanbase or analysts around the league, Elliott doesn't get the same kind of love as players like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell receive from the national media. The knock against Elliott has been that he doesn't bring the same value as a receiver. With what he has done over the last six weeks, and really all season long, it's safe to say, that won't be a knock against the Cowboys All-Pro running back.

Among running backs this season, Ezekiel Elliott ranks sixth in targets (77), fifth in receptions (65). seventh in yards (502), and is tied for 12th in receiving touchdowns with three. Elliott is the seventh highest rated running back when targeted among running backs with at least 50 targets this season.

Over the last six weeks, since the Amari Cooper trade, only Christian McCaffrey has more targets, receptions, and yards than Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott's previous career high was in 2016 when he caught 32 passes on 39 targets. With three games left in the season, Elliott has more than doubled his previous career high from that season. Over the last six weeks, he's caught 40 passes with an average of 6.7 receptions per game.

Ezekiel Elliott is on pace for his best total yardage season in the NFL. If he continues at his current per game averages, Elliott would finish the season with 330 carries for 1,553 rushing yards, 80 catches on 100 targets for 618 yards and 10 total touchdowns. He's been great this year, but he's been even better over the last six games. At his per game averages for the last six games, over a 16 game season, Elliott's numbers would look like this; 363 carries for 1,715 yards rushing, 107 receptions on 120 targets for 872 yards, and 13 total touchdowns.

It's rare that Ezekiel Elliott has a game like he did on Sunday and it goes largely unnoticed by Cowboys Nation, but that's just how tremendous Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper were. In a game where the Cowboys got big games and big plays through the passing game, it was Elliott's steadiness that held things together and helped sustain drives like the fourth and one conversion in overtime. Even with Amari Cooper elevating his game since coming to the Cowboys, there's no question that Ezekiel Elliott is the Cowboys best skill position player. Expect more big games for Elliott as the Cowboys continue to "Feed Zeke."



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