FRISCO, Texas -- A smile comes over Scott Linehan’s face when he is asked about Ezekiel Elliott's return to the team this Monday after the running back’s six-game suspension ends.
“Oh, it’ll be great to see him again,” said the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator. “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, really can’t wait for that game and really feel like we’ve built some momentum for ourselves and like to continue that, hopefully.”
Without question, the Cowboys have missed Elliott. They scored at least 28 points in six straight games with him on the field, then suffered three straight losses in which the offense failed to score 10 points, a franchise first. They have won two straight games, the offense waking up for a combined 61 points with a punt return for a score sprinkled in, to remain in the playoff chase.
Heading into the final game without Elliott against the Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys’ running game has not been an issue. They have averaged 120.4 yards per game on the ground. While that is not at the same level as the 148.3 yards per game they were averaging with Elliott, it still would rank ninth in the NFL.
“It wasn’t exactly what we wanted initially, but we just stayed with it,” Linehan said. “And the guys know that for us to be successful in our philosophy here -- and I use the term primary run team -- we’re probably going to run first more than most teams in this league, so to do that it doesn’t matter whether you got Zeke out there or put Al or Rod in there. You’ve got to stick with it. 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.”
Alfred Morris has one 100-yard game and 369 yards on 83 carries in the past five games. He has been steady, displaying the skills of his 1,000-yard seasons with the Washington Redskins. His ability to let the blocking develop in the zone running game has led to the Cowboys’ ability to grind the last two games in their favor.
“He’s a really good runner,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s been very productive in this league. He’s been productive for us. Even in games that we didn’t have success, we ran the ball fairly well and fairly efficiently. He’s had a couple breakout games. He’s made a lot of big plays for us. He’s just a really good football player.”
Rod Smith was the unknown to those outside of the Cowboys, but in the spring and summer, Smith showed he would have a role in the offense. In the past five games, he has run for 140 yards on 36 carries and has scored a rushing touchdown in three straight games. He also has 11 catches for 135 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown last week against the Giants.
“He was playing some before Zeke left, but he has a bigger role so he gets more opportunities,” Linehan said. “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.”
But on Monday, with Elliott able to return, things will change, although the Cowboys have not devised a plan as to how they will re-integrate Elliott into the offense. In the first eight games of the season, Elliott had 191 of the 215 carries by the tailbacks and 783 of their 968 yards.
“It doesn’t feel any different,” Morris said. “I approach every day the same way. I approach every game the same way. So right now, I’ll be the starter this Sunday. Next week I’ll be back backing up. To me, I still approach it the same way. It still feels the same for me. It’ll still be a work week.”