ARLINGTON, Texas -- Inspirational. That's the word Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones used to describe the impact of a judge's ruling that running back Ezekiel Elliott could play while his legal case against the NFL works its way through the court.
"Every person was lifted by that decision," Jones said. "It was a good one. Although he was playing in this game no matter what, the idea we can have him for an extended period of time was inspirational."
That may be unseemly -- after all, the NFL suspended Elliott for six games because it believes its year-long investigation showed he abused his former girlfriend -- but it's hard to argue that, in football terms, Jones is wrong.
The Cowboysbeat the New york Giants, 19-3, Sunday night and if the most surprising part of the game was a suspension and injury-riddled defense suffocating the Giants, the most obvious ingredient to the Cowboys' dominance was Elliott. He ran 24 times for 104 yards, and one glance at an inexplicable sequence when the Cowboys attempted three passes from first-and-goal at the 3 in the first quarter, and had to settle for a field goal, underscores Elliott's gridiron value to the Cowboys. Dak Prescott can throw high. The offense can struggle to score. But if Elliott can chew the clock as he did late in the game, the Cowboys can squeeze the life from opponents. The Cowboys needed only look across to the opposite sideline to see how an offense can grind to a halt when its most critical force is absent.
The Giants' chances for victory probably died when Odell Beckham Jr. was declared inactive before the game because of an ankle sprain, which meant there was nobody on the field to scare the Cowboys' defense. Dallas' season is very much alive because a judge said Elliott would be available, possibly for the entire year.
"I saw a player when he was in there, it looked impressive and when anybody else was in there, it didn't look as impressive," a giddy Jones said after the game. "It's just obvious he has such speed and power."
No doubt. It is why the six-game suspension would have been devastating to the Cowboys, although Jason Witten said the team bonds together when it faces adversity. Elliott declined to say that his case has served as motivation now that the games have begun, and said that with a team this talented, he doesn't have to do anything extra. Whether he is playing with a chip on his shoulder might be beside the point anyway. He is a thundering force for the Cowboys, angry or otherwise.
But Elliott seems to not understand the limits of the judge's ruling. He said that when he learned of the ruling on Friday afternoon, he felt relief that he had received the restraining order that forbids the NFL from enforcing its suspension. The case before the judge in Sherman, Texas, has nothing to do with the underlying issues of Elliott's suspension -- whether or not he is guilty of domestic violence -- but is about something critical in a legal sense, whether or not the NFL committed procedural errors that did not allow Elliott a fair hearing.
"The fact that I finally get a fair trial, I finally get a chance to prove my innocence," Elliott said, in his first remarks since training camp. "I'm just happy I'll be able to be with these guys for as long as is permitted."
Elliott's case, including the NFL's lengthy investigation, has gone on for 14 months, a fact he noted several times. And by all accounts, he has been successful at compartmentalizing his life, putting his legal issues aside when it was time to practice and play. He would not say whether he thinks the process has been unfair to him, and when asked if he has learned anything and would do anything differently in the future, he said he was not talking about it.
"It is what it is," Elliott said. "I've kind of stopped worrying about it. I'm just really focused on being the running back I need to be, so we can accomplish what we want to accomplish."
Later, he added: "This whole situation has been such a distraction. What's really important, what should be getting all the light, is this team."
Elliott was also asked what has been hardest for him.
"Just kind of being associated with that, that's tough," he said of the nature of the allegations against him.
That was not settled with the injunction on Friday, and no matter how many courts the NFL and the players union battle in, no matter how long it takes to render a final decision on whether he will miss games, it may never be settled. Jones was careful not to directly criticize the NFL's investigation, but in an elliptical response to a question, he said the process by which the NFL deals with player discipline has to be "fair."
In the meantime, we will be left to read the report of the league's investigation, to read the union's allegations about the process, to read the court's rulings and then decide for ourselves. And Elliott will power the Cowboys, even when the rest of the offense is not at its best.
Inspirational. Or something more sinister. Whichever it is, Elliott is indisputably the most important Cowboy.