The Dallas Cowboys have experienced incredible highs and frustrating lows over the last two seasons. In 2016, they went 13-3 and were the No. 1 seed in the NFC. In 2017, they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
Of course, perhaps that was to be expected. Ezekiel Elliott played in five fewer games in 2017, and the Cowboys finished with four fewer wins. His suspension hung over the Cowboys for the first half of the year, and Dallas was ultimately without its star tailback for six games – during the stretch run of the season, no less.
Did Zeke’s suspension – and the drama surrounding it – negatively affect the team?
“I really don’t (think so),” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said on The DA Show. “Distractions happen, of course, across the league for every team – and certainly we’ve had our fair share in Dallas. The thing that we do best is you can’t allow that to affect you. Zeke’s a tremendous player. Not having him on the field certainly affects your team, just because he’s such a playmaker. But I thought we did a good job when he wasn’t in there of guys filling in.”
Indeed, backups Alfred Morris and Rod Smith combined for 779 rushing yards, 202 receiving yards and six touchdowns (five rushing, one receiving), with the bulk of that coming during Elliott’s suspension.
“You don’t replace guys like Zeke Elliott,” Witten said. “They’re just too good. I think it’s easy to kind of point to, ‘Well, they had those distractions and they had a couple injuries.’ For us, it’s more about understanding that you got to be able to eliminate that. You got to work through those. The teams that are able to and overcome the injuries – such as Philadelphia – they’re the ones that can make this stage. That’s where our focus is. We had a chance there just down the stretch. We weren’t able to do enough to give ourselves a chance in the playoffs.”
It was an up-and-down season for Dallas. The Cowboys started 2-3, won three straight, lost three straight, and won four of their final five. But it wasn’t enough to reach the postseason.
Witten, though, isn’t making excuses.
“Injuries happen,” he said. “This case was different because it was a suspension, but those things occur. You still got to find ways to win. Philadelphia’s left tackle (Jason Peters) went down. That’s a big role for a football team. The quarterback (went) down. I think we definitely missed (Elliott) out there because he’s a dynamic player, but we can’t allow that to be our crutch for why we didn’t make the playoffs in 2017.”