By Michael James
The Tribe Sports
Moments after the Dallas Cowboys were officially eliminated from the 2017 National Football League playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks, and Russell Wilson’s wife, Ciara, had danced all over the Cowboys’ end zone logo, fans of America’s Team started searching for a fall guy.
Some immediately singled out head coach Jason Garrett, with Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard pointing out that the Cowboys have played just two playoff games in Garrett’s tenure since 2011, and said it was time for him to go.
Others grumbled about Dak Prescott, who struggled mightily after having made it easy for fans to let go of Tony Romo a year ago, especially when he was forced to try to win games without suspended star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Some turned on receiver Dez Bryant, who for years has been demanding the ball, but this past season spent an inordinate amount of time letting it slip through his fingers or bounce off his hands when his number was called.
Still others placed the blame on the ever-meddling owner Jerry Jones for being, well, Jerry Jones.
In addition to creating the distraction of declaring war on commissioner Roger Goodell and trying to force other owners to not re-up his contract, Jones also had to apologize for a racist comment he made that was caught on video. His fellow owners eventually removed Jones from his non-voting position on the league compensation committee. In addition, Jones made unnecessary waves with his waffling position on the NFL player protest.
While it’s true that to some degree all of the above are responsible for the Dallas Cowboys not living up to their preseason perch of Super Bowl contenders, the No. 1 reason for Team America’s failure?
Although the Cowboys weren’t officially done until Week 17 and didn’t seem appreciably better with Elliott (5-4) than they were without him (3-3), the fact remains that his season-long saga of will-he-or-won’t-he serve his league-mandated six game suspension had the heaviest effect on the overall 2017 campaign.
Put this way: had Elliott simply accepted his medicine after the league investigated domestic abuse allegations lodged against him before he joined the team and served his suspension at the beginning of the season, the Cowboys would have had 10 full games to pursue their playoff aspirations.
And, you know what? They probably would have made the playoffs.
Instead, because of Elliott’s persistent legal challenges and the subsequent injunctions allowing him to delay the suspension, uncertainty hovered over the entire Cowboys season – culminating in his return in a must-win scenario against Seattle.
An argument could also be made that Jones, who should have insisted that Elliott accept a suspension he was always going to serve from the moment Goodell imposed it, would have never engaged in the distracting battle with the commissioner had Elliott been sidelined the first six weeks.
In the meantime, while chaos and uncertainty reigned in Dallas, which fell from 13-3 and the No. 1 NFC playoff seed a season ago, others rose in the form of the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints.
None of this is to dismiss Garrett’s failure to prepare for that eventual six-game stint without Elliott, or Dez Bryant’s apparent decline, or Prescott’s sophomore slump, but the biggest impact on the team all season long was Elliott’s fight against the league, which drew in Jones, and, ultimately, got the Cowboys caught up in the whirlpool.
Again, Jones, who’s lived several lifetimes longer than the 22-year-old Elliott, should have taken the reins and made his star sit for the first six games and gotten that uncertainty out of the way, has to shoulder his share of fault. In fact, Jones could easily be the No. 1 culprit because it was within his power to control the whole situation.
The sole reason Jones falls to No. 2 on my blame list is because all of this happened solely because of the pattern of bad behavior Ezekiel Elliott established while a pampered athlete at The Ohio State University. Jones, like Urban Meyer before him, simply tried to protect his prized star, while in fact missing out on an opportunity to mentor him.
For this reason, Elliott, whose arrogance and dismissive attitude seemed to have remained intact as evidenced by unrepentant-as-ever his comments to media upon his return, should be Public Enemy No. 1 in Dallas right now.
Elliott, who claims to have spent the season fighting the NFL to clear his name of domestic abuse allegations, was simply selfish. He knew exactly what the league uncovered in its investigations of his behavior with his ex-girlfriend while at OSU, a woman who was revealed to have asked her friends to lie in order to derail Elliott’s career.
But, as The Tribe Sports wrote here earlier this year, instead of suing his ex, Tiffany Thompson, for lying on him, the second-year player risked creating enemies in the league office and created the uncertainty that lasted all season long.
In the end, all of this mess lies directly at the feet of Ezekiel Elliott.
It could also be argued that Prescott would have been better off figuring out how to navigate the season without Elliott from the beginning and the team as a whole would have been buoyed by his return for the seventh game of the season with the playoff chase laid out before them.
In the end, none of it matters now. The season is over in Dallas. The Super Bowl will be played without them once again. More than anything, Dallas Cowboys fans all over the country now have an entire year to debate who was to blame for this failure – until the next one.
Michael James has spent more than 20 years in sports journalism as a general assignment reporter with the Detroit News, an NBA beat writer for the New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN’s Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith.