There is no question the Dallas Cowboys are looking forward to seeing star running back Ezekiel Elliott when he returns to the practice facility at the Star in Frisco on Monday following his six-game suspension.
But that will have to wait until after Sunday’s final game without Elliott, against the Oakland Raiders.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is admittedly excited for the duo of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith handling the bulk of the running game one more time. The Cowboys running game has been largely better than expected without Elliott.
“Oh, it’ll be great to see him again,” Linehan said. “We miss him around here. But I’m looking forward to these guys who have filled in for him play another ballgame in Oakland. So I really can’t wait for that game and really feel like we’ve built some momentum for ourselves and like to continue that hopefully.”
The Cowboys have the league’s third-ranked rushing offense, averaging 137.5 yards per game. After a three-game losing streak, the Cowboys have regained their footing in consecutive wins against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants behind rushing efforts of 182 and 122 yards, respectively.
“It wasn’t exactly what we wanted initially, but we just stayed with it,” Linehan said. “The guys know that for us to be successful in our philosophy here, we’re probably going to run first more than most teams in this league.
“To do that, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got Zeke out there or put Al or Rod in there, you’ve got to stick with it,” he said. “I think the guys have done a great job of hanging in there with it and started to be even better and produce more like we were accustomed to prior to Zeke not being here.”
Morris has been the primary ball carrier and proved he can be a lead back, harkening back to the early days in his career when he topped the 1,000-barrier three years in a row for the Washington Redskins.
He has averaged 5.0 yards per attempt this season, and shown the ability to get better as the game goes longer. The highlight was against the Redskins when he carried 27 times for 127 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s got that style in the run game where he can carry the load,” Linehan said. “He can be a 20-plus carry guy. And that’s where he is going to have his best production where he can have those carries on those numbers. He gets stronger, as all backs do.
“He has done well if you just look at his raw stats. His average per carry is right where you want it to be in this league. So he is a great pro. He is a great person. He works his butt off. You love to root for a guy like this. It’s great to see him have his opportunity now.”
Morris entered training camp running fourth on the depth chart at times behind Elliott, the recently-released Darren McFadden and Smith. Now there is a legitimate question if he would be offered a starting job as a free agent after the season.
“I think it’s been good at times, it’s been bad at times,” Morris said. “But that’s just me. I’m extra critical of myself. So, of course, I want to play a lot better like those first two games, for instance, I wish they would’ve went a lot better. Not just me from a personal level, but as a team level. We’d be in a lot different position right now, so sometimes I put that on me.
“But right now our goal is to keep winning out and we’ve got another tough opponent in front of us.”
Smith might be the biggest bright spot, especially on third downs where he has earned a role that he could keep even when Elliott returns.
That was most evident in the 30-10 victory against the New York Giants last Sunday when he had four third-down conversions, an 81-yard reception for a touchdown, a 15-yard run for a touchdown and picked up a blitz to allow quarterback Dak Prescott to complete a 54-yard pass to receiver Cole Beasley.
Smith, a 2015 undrafted free agent who spent last year on the practice squad, is no longer just a developmental prospect and the older, lesser-known brother of Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith.
“I think we knew,” Linehan said of Smith’s potential. “You’ve just got to go out there and do it. He has had the opportunity to go out there and produce now that he is playing more. He was playing some before Zeke left. But he has a bigger role. So he gets more opportunities.
“The great thing for him is he has been able to take on that third-down role exclusively now. Not just third-down passes, but third-down runs. He has defined a role for himself on this team that we felt we could develop, but can now see it become reality.”
Cowboys at Raiders
7:30 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5