Update 9:35 a.m. — Turns out it wasn't a sure thing that Elliott's suspension would begin Sunday. On Friday morning, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Elliott an administrative stay, allowing him to play Sunday against the Chiefs. The court will hear arguments on issuing a longer stay pending Elliott's full appeal next week.
It's nearly certain at this point that the Cowboys are going to be without Ezekiel Elliott when they take the field against AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoon. Barring intervention from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the budding superstar will miss the team's next six games, returning Dec. 17 for the Cowboys' tilt with the Raiders in Oakland.
During Elliott's absence, the Cowboys will be without perhaps their most talented player. Thanks to the offensive talent the Cowboys have stockpiled over the last half-dozen or so seasons, however, there are reasons to believe the team can survive Elliott's suspension and salvage one of the most anticipated Cowboys seasons in recent memory. There's risk, too, that the Cowboys' next three games, the toughest on their schedule, could sink the team before it really got the chance to swim.
As the Cowboys head off into the unknown, here are five things worth keeping in mind.
Zeke's Continuing Legal Battle
Both the NFL and the NFL Players Association filed their final briefs with the 2nd Circuit on Thursday afternoon, opening the door for the court to rule on Elliott's request that his suspension be put on hold while he fights U.S. District Judge Katherine Failla's decision that Elliott's punishment should be enforced immediately.
Because the 2nd Circuit was not in session Thursday and is not in session Friday, the earliest the court could hear oral arguments on Elliott's stay request is Tuesday. Nevertheless, Elliott has two long-shot chances to play Sunday. The court could grant a temporary administrative stay that would let Elliott play Sunday before arguments next week. The players association has also asked the court to issue a longer-term stay based on the briefs already submitted by both sides.
While the angles are there, the most likely outcome, by far, is that Elliott will serve his suspension during the next six weeks, thanks to the strength of Failla's opinion and the 2nd Circuit's previous decision to enforce Tom Brady's "Deflategate" suspension.
When Alfred Morris lines up behind Dak Prescott in the Cowboys' first offensive play Sunday, he'll become the first Cowboys running back besides Elliott to start a meaningful game for the team since Nov. 15, 2015. That was the day the Cowboys lost 10-6 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, dropping to 2-7 on the season and out of serious playoff contention.
Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith, the Cowboys' fourth-string running back, will all see meaningful action during Elliott's extended absence. All three are capable of performing well behind the Cowboys' formidable offensive line. Morris is perhaps best suited to the line's favored zone-blocking scheme, with his one-cut running style.
The team will miss Elliott's acceleration and brutal, physical running style. McFadden, Morris and Smith can all pick up the 4- and 5-yard chunks that are essential to sustaining the Cowboys offense, but they aren't capable of wearing down a defense to the point that those runs turn into 8-, 9- and 15-yard gains in the second half.
Without Elliott, the Cowboys are going to have to work harder for big gains, leaning on Prescott and the team's receiving corps to move the ball down the field.
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What the Cowboys need to do
In Elliott's absence, the Cowboys need to go at least 3-3. If they do that, they'll have a decent shot to make the playoffs, thanks to a closing three-game stretch against the Raiders, who are falling apart, and the Seahawks and Eagles, two teams likely to have qualified for the playoffs before they take on the Cowboys. If the Cowboys can do better than 3-3, they'll have a chance to challenge the Eagles for the NFC East championship, thanks to the Eagles' difficult second-half schedule. With their remaining offensive talent and a pass rush that's developing into a major asset for the defense, there's no reason the Cowboys can't win four of their next six.
Fantasy football implications
The most important thing in all of this, of course, is the effect Elliott's suspension will have on those who have him on their fantasy football teams. In Elliott's absence, Morris is probably the best pickup among the Cowboys backs given his home-run potential and the fact that he's a more effective goal-line runner than McFadden. McFadden is worth picking up or trading for, this week especially, because six teams are on their bye weeks. Smith has no fantasy value at the moment.
It's worth mentioning that there is a nightmare scenario in play for Elliott's fantasy owners. As things stand, he is slated to miss weeks 9-14 of the season. He'll back in time for the start of most fantasy leagues' playoffs in week 15. If he gets a temporary stay, however, and makes it on the field against the Chiefs but serves his suspension during the next six games, Elliott will be out for the week 15 fantasy semifinals, the make-or-break point for a successful fantasy campaign.
There is one particularly big silver lining to Elliott's suspension if the Cowboys hang on while he's out: He'll be fresh for the stretch run and the playoffs. Although the Cowboys already had their bye week, Elliott has the second-most touches in the NFL, trailing only the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell. Six weeks away from Jerry World and The Star will save a lot of tread on his tires, but it will be up to Elliott's teammates to make sure that it matters.