Darren McFadden rushed for 1,089 yards in 2015, the year after DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing and then proved too costly for the Cowboys to keep. The Cowboys thought so much of McFadden’s performance that they signed Alfred Morris in free agency and then drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick.
Repeatedly last season, Jason Garrett used the phrase “the runner matters” as Elliott was on his way to becoming the NFL’s leading rusher. Now, the Cowboys will have to play six games without Elliott, the first four against teams that fielded top-10 defenses last season.
“He is a remarkable player, big strong athletic,” tight end Jason Witten said Thursday before Elliott’s suspension, via Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “He is smart. He is tough. That is a strength of our team. He is one of the best in the league. You would miss someone like that if he was out.”
The Cowboys built their offense around Elliott, and he was expected to play an even bigger role this season. He had 354 touches last season, or 35 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive plays.
But the Cowboys are in better position than if they had traded Morris in the offseason as they tried to do.
McFadden and Morris have combined for 10,379 career yards and 59 rushing touchdowns, and the Cowboys signed Ronnie Hillman last month to take over as the third-down back, a role Lance Dunbar had the past few seasons when he was healthy.
The Cowboys list McFadden, who turns 30 later this month, second on the depth chart. He played only three games last season after fracturing his right elbow before training camp, and had 24 carries for 87 yards.
Morris was miscast with the Cowboys after they drafted Elliott. The more carries he gets, the better he gets, and he ended up playing only 112 snaps in 13 games, getting 61 carries.
It’s also important to note that the Cowboys offensive line isn’t the same as last season or as in 2014 when the team had the league’s leading rusher. Left guard Ron Leary left in free agency, and right tackle Doug Free retired. La'el Collins is making the transition from left guard to right tackle, and either Jonathan Cooper or Byron Bell is expected to win the left guard spot, which Collins manned for three games last season before a toe injury ended his season and put Leary back in the starting lineup.
The Cowboys have a better Plan B than most teams would, but then most teams don’t have Ezekiel Elliott. Their offense won’t look the same to start the season, and Dak Prescott will have more placed on his shoulders without his security blanket in the backfield.