Forget the passing game’s struggles. Forget whether Jason Garrett should be on the proverbial “hot seat.”
The major storyline for the Dallas Cowboys throughout last season centered on star running back Ezekiel Elliott and his suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy, stemming from July 2016 domestic violence allegations.
Elliott’s six-game suspension ruined a possible playoff season for the Cowboys, which makes ensuring his availability for the entirety of 2018 one of the top priorities for the organization.
That means Elliott must avoid making headlines for the wrong reasons and eliminate any possible reason for the NFL to conduct another investigation. The Cowboys are confident Elliott has learned his lesson, particularly since he faced discipline despite never being arrested or charged from the domestic violence allegations.
“I know Zeke wants to be great — I’m convinced of that, that he wants to be great,” Stephen Jones said this week from Senior Bowl practices. “He’s also got to understand that, to be great, you can’t have these things that we call distractions and things of that nature. Things that take away, not only from him, but from our team.”
Owner Jerry Jones stated repeatedly throughout the investigation process that he felt the league handled it poorly and that it had wrongly convicted Elliott of a crime he didn’t commit.
But, as Stephen Jones pointed out, Elliott didn’t do himself any favors. He created a perception of being a problem child throughout the 13-month investigation.
The NFL started looking into the incident in July 2016. Believing he did nothing wrong and it would eventually be dropped, Elliott seemed to live with a carefree spirit and found himself making negative headlines throughout the investigation.
He visited a marijuana dispensary during a 2016 preseason game in Seattle; he exposed a woman’s breast during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in March 2017; and he happened to be at a Dallas bar when a “late-night incident” occurred in July 2017.
Since that bar incident, though, Elliott has maintained a relatively low profile and hasn’t stirred much controversy off the field. So has he finally figured out how to stay on the straight and narrow?
“I can only say you hope so. Zeke needs to answer that question,” Stephen Jones said. “Obviously, right up through the start of last season, there were things that were popping up. We haven’t seen that as of late and hopefully that’s a good indicator that he understands.”
Elliott seems to have learned the hard way even though he endured a lengthy legal battle with the league, proclaiming his innocence throughout it all. Ultimately, he accepted the suspension because he had essentially an unwinnable case because of the collective bargaining agreement.
Elliott believes he did enough to raise doubts about the NFL’s process to clear his name and reputation, and said after the season that he was at peace with the entire ordeal.
Still, it’s fair to wonder whether the Cowboys have set up safeguards for Elliott simply out of an abundance of caution. After all, another suspension could ruin another season for the Cowboys.
“We have our infrastructure in place that we’re always working to help our players,” Stephen Jones said. “It’s certainly there for them. At the same time, you can’t be with them every waking hour. At some point, they’re men. They have to be accountable to themselves and I know that they know that they have to be accountable to the organization.”
Added Jerry Jones: “Two things: No. 1, we all know that on a personal basis that issue was a hard issue for Zeke. Logic tells me that what he had to deal with that is a big deterrent in looking at anything like that in the future. That’s about the best way I know, that when those kinds of negative things happen to you there is usually follow, usually create deterrence for doing it again when you’ve had that kind of experience that he had this past year.
“That was a lot of punishment for him under the circumstances for what he didn’t do.”
Elliott, who turns 23 in July, understands his value to the organization and vice versa. He is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball.
He led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards as a rookie in 2016. Elliott finished that season averaging 5.1 yards a carry and scoring 15 touchdowns on the ground.
This past season, though, Elliott saw his yards per carry drop a full yard to 4.1. He finished the season with 983 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games.
Part of that can be blamed on the legal battle and ensuing suspension. Just when it appeared Elliott found his groove in the running game, averaging 126.5 rushing yards and scoring five touchdowns in a four-game stretch, he was suspended.
But, as Jerry Jones likes to say, availability is ability. Elliott’s availability is important for the Cowboys’ ability to succeed.