Most within the Dallas Cowboys organization didn’t see a six-game suspension coming for Ezekiel Elliott.
“For us, it’s very shocking,” running back Darren McFadden said. “We didn’t know what was going on exactly. To hear six games, it was definitely a surprise to us.”
Said safety Byron Jones: “It seemed like it was long, but I don’t know how the decisions are made. I wish there was more clarity on that, but at the end of the day, we support Zeke.”
Elliott is planning to appeal the personal-conduct policy suspension with his attorneys, saying the league drew erroneous conclusions and “cherry picked” different parts of a yearlong investigation into domestic violence allegations to justify Elliott’s discipline.
Elliott, 22, was cleared of criminal charges by the Columbus, Ohio, city prosecutor’s office last September because of inconsistent information from the victim. But the NFL felt there was strong enough evidence that Elliott committed domestic violence on three occasions against his ex-girlfriend in its own investigation.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, the league has the power to suspend players even if they don’t face legal charges under the personal conduct policy. And they showed that power with a harsh suspension of Elliott that many didn’t see coming.
Owner Jerry Jones and executive vice president Stephen Jones said days before the suspension that they expected Elliott to avoid one. Elliott’s teammates and coaching staff even seemed caught off-guard by the length of it.
“Any time you’re suspended, you’re surprised,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “We’re here to support him. Whatever happens in the appeal process is going to happen and we’ve got to make sure the guys are ready to go.”
Asked Elliott’s mood since the suspension was announced, Brown said: “He’s down because he wants to be there for his teammates. But like I told him, ‘You got to handle your business and we will support you and hold you up and as running backs, we’ll do what we need to do until you get back.’ ”
Elliott tried to act like himself before Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, donning his customary crop top and joking around with teammates. Afterward, though, Elliott had his headphones on and bolted for the buses, escorted by a team public relations official and security guard.
Outside of an 84-word statement posted to his social media account, Elliott hasn’t spoken publicly about the NFL suspending him six games and likely won’t until the matter is officially resolved.
As Elliott and his side prepare for what could become a drawn-out legal battle, the Cowboys are bracing for life without him. And there’s no question it’s an uphill battle to replace that type of production on the field.
This is a guy who led the league in rushing as a rookie and is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball.
“Obviously Ezekiel Elliott is a good football player,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We feel like we built our team the right way and we feel like we have some veteran experience ... We’re going to focus on the guys we have available to us. Ezekiel will be with us practicing as we go forward and he’s going to get himself ready to play when the time comes.”
Veteran tight end Jason Witten understands what the loss of Elliott means from an on-field standpoint. But he is also passionate about stopping domestic violence after seeing the harm it does firsthand as a child growing up with an abusive father.
Witten said he doesn’t know all the information regarding Elliott’s situation, but said: “There is no place for a man to put his hand on a woman. Most of you guys know that I had some situations that affected my family as a younger kid, so I put a lot of work and attention and have a platform to step out and speak on stopping domestic violence.
“Having said that, Zeke continues to work through it. He’s talked about it. How many games and all that stuff? That’s not what you really deal with. He’s a teammate and just need to work through it with him and have this opportunity to grow from it. I think that’s what his purpose is right now.
“We’ll address it as a team. We have. I think our team has been really good going through adversity. We’ve responded the right way because I do believe we have the right guys on our football team. That’s been my approach and certainly in these situations it’s never easy. But Zeke’s been a teammate of mine for the last year and I’ve enjoyed having that relationship with him. Not only as a tremendous football player, but the opportunity to be able to have a relationship with him and mentor him. … I’m certain that he’ll work through it and be better and grow from it.”
In the meantime, Elliott’s expected absence will pave the way for more carries for McFadden and Alfred Morris. Both have been 1,000-yard rushers in the league, and McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yards two years ago with the Cowboys.
The Cowboys feel good about that depth and feel they can stay afloat with however many games Elliott is ultimately sidelined for.
“We’ve got really good depth at the running back position,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We have all the confidence in the world of the guys who are going to step up and we are just going from there.”
Cowboys vs. Colts
6 p.m. Saturday, KTVT/11