Mac Engel

Be optimistic, but Cowboys are beset with concerns

Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension is one of many problems facing the Dallas Cowboys before the start of the 2017 season.
Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension is one of many problems facing the Dallas Cowboys before the start of the 2017 season. AP

Not sure what was thicker at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: the smog in the air or the denial from the Dallas Cowboys.

“We can’t control what the NFL does and it’s not my place to comment [on the suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott],” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said after his team’s 13-10 loss to the Rams on Saturday night.

Uh, yes it is. You’re the head coach of a franchise that’s dealing with the NFL’s leading rusher being suspended for six games. You are well within your rights to express your opinion without fear of a fine.

It bears repeating that if Elliott is guilty of what the NFL alleges he did to an ex-girlfriend, he should be suspended for an entire year.

But no one on the Cowboys is quite sure how this suspension will play out.

“How we are going to treat this is that he’s not going to be here for that time,” guard Zack Martin told me. “And that the rest of us have to pick up the slack and carry on.”

There is a consensus/fear that Zeke’s fight against the league will turn ugly, but there is no agreement on how many games he will miss and when he will serve that time.

There should be an agreement, though, that this is one of many disconcerting realities for a team expected to contend for a spot in the NFC title game.

This is not an overreaction to the Cowboys’ snore loss to the Rams, but an acknowledgment of the obvious: All is not OK for Hall of Famer Jerry Jones’ team.

Every year in the NFL there are a handful of worst-to-first and first-to-worst teams. The Cowboys were a worst-to-first team in 2016, and the way things have evolved in 2017 we should all have a supply of empty air-bags ready to go beginning in Week 1.

The Cowboys finished 13-3 last season thanks to wonderful play and one of the league’s easiest schedules. Now they will have one of the toughest and the reality that this franchise has not posted consecutive 10-win seasons since 1995 and ‘96. The team has not made the playoffs in consecutive years since ‘06 and ‘07.

Now, they are supposed to break these pull-your-hair-out trends with a defense that may not be much better than it was last year when it was barely average, and potentially without Zeke for six games.

And behind an offensive line that changed two-fifths of its lineup, and nervously monitors All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith’s bad back.

Coach Process loves to preach culture, and part of that culture in his regime has been suspended players. Rolando McClain. Greg Hardy. Orlando Scandrick. David Irving. DeMarcus Lawrence. Randy Gregory. And now Zeke, too.

It’s nearly a rite of passage for our ’Boys. These things are a distraction, not to mention a major loss for a team that needs him.

“We have really good depth at the running back position and we have all the confidence in the world these guys are going to step up and just go from there,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said Saturday night.

Let’s see, Darren McFadden is 29 and entering his 10th year in the NFL. Alfred Morris is 28 and entering his sixth year in the NFL.

“I’m ready for whatever the coaches throw at me,” McFadden said after the game.

That’s the can-do spirit. Any chance you could please lead the NFL in rushing? That would be great.

No spin could convince even McFadden or Morris that these competent pros can adequately replace Elliott, which is their task at hand.

“We have a lot of quality guys who have shown they can run the ball in this league,” Martin said. “It’s going to be fun for those guys, and we do have a lot of guys who can make plays.”

The hope/plan is that an 87-year-old man could run behind this offensive line and pose as a competent threat.

This assumes this line, which lost guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Doug Free in the off-season, will be as good as it was last season when it was the best in the NFL. This assumes that La’el Collins will be Free’s equal at right tackle.

Collins could be Free’s equal, or superior. But remember a lot of Cowboys people thought the line was better with Leary in at guard after Collins suffered a season-ending injury early last season.

Free had his flaws, but he had battled back from a demotion, an embarrassing pay cut, and became a quality player and a highly-respected veteran in the locker room. The team tried to persuade him not to retire in the off-season.

Every roster has turnover, and every club has issues. Most teams are just a bad break or two from .500, or 6-10.

The Cowboys had a lot, and that was before the Zeke suspension. There is not an agreement on how this is going to play out, but there are major concerns for Hall of Famer Jerry Jones’ team.

So let’s not deny it.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof