The hearing looms large over Ezekiel Elliott, the difference between being able to play the rest of the season or being banished for six weeks.
But the stakes are no less significant for the Dallas Cowboys.
Already on the outside looking in when it comes to the NFC wild-card race, losing their star running back for more than a third of the season might very well doom their playoff hopes.
“Zeke is critical,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “You can see he’s a valued member — member is almost trite to say. We need him.”
As Elliott headed to New York for Monday’s hearing in federal court, he left the Cowboys with a stark reminder of just how much he’d be missed if his absence turns into an extended one. On a sloppy, rainy afternoon where Dak Prescott couldn’t get anything going, Elliott accounted for a whopping 35 of Dallas’ 63 plays. He finished with 150 yards rushing — more than half of Dallas’ overall yardage — and averaged more than 4.5 yards on his 33 carries.
Field goals might have been the Cowboys’ best friend in the 33-19 victory over NFC East rival Washington, but it was Elliott who scored their two offensive touchdowns. It could have been three, but the 26-yard score was wiped out when tackle Tyron Smith was whistled for holding.
“(Elliott) was outstanding today — and he had to be,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We’re at our best when we run the football and we really needed to run it and run it a lot and run it well, particularly in the second half, when the weather got even worse.
“He just did a really good job controlling the game for us.”
He’s powerless to control what happens now.
After an investigation that lasted more than a year, Elliott was suspended in August for six games for abusing his ex-girlfriend on three different occasions. He’s denied the allegations — he was never charged, though the prosecutor in Columbus, Ohio, said he believed the woman — and has vigorously appealed the suspension.
Much like Tom Brady did with Deflategate, he’s bounced from courtroom to courtroom — in Texas, New Orleans and New York, for those keeping track — looking for someone to give him a reprieve at least until the season is over. On Oct. 17, Elliott was granted a temporary restraining order because the federal judge assigned his case, Kathleen Polk Failla, was out of town.
Now Failla is back, and she’ll hear arguments Monday afternoon.
If she grants Elliott’s request for an injunction, odds are good he’ll be able to play the rest of the season. If not, he’ll be suspended immediately and wouldn’t be able to return until Dec. 17, a Sunday night game against the Oakland Raiders.
“It’ll be beneficial, I guess, to say we’ll know if we have him or not,” Prescott said.
That’s small comfort if you’re watching the season circle the drain, though. While Elliott said he has confidence in Dallas’ other running backs — Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith — they’re not Elliott. Not even close.
Prescott is a special quarterback, and he can do a lot of damage if his offensive line continues to play as well as it did Sunday. But what makes the Cowboys so potent is the combination of Prescott’s arm and Elliott’s bruising runs.
Expecting one to carry the entire team is a tall order. Probably too tall.
Dallas’ schedule the next six weeks includes games against Kansas City, reigning NFC champion Atlanta and the hottest team in the NFL, the Philadelphia Eagles. There’s also another game against Washington.
Even if the Cowboys go .500 over that stretch, the playoffs could be out of reach by the time Elliott returns.
“It’s really out of my hands,” Elliott said. “Just trust my legal team, trust they’re going to do their job and make sure I’m on the field next week.”
As Elliott awaits his fate, it’s the Cowboys’ season that hangs in the balance, too.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.