If importance is defined by absence then Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee are the most important players on the Dallas Cowboys as they enter this postseason.
And that would be correct.
Elliott and Lee did not play Sunday at the Philadelphia Eagles in what turned out to be a 27-13 loss made significant only due to Tony Romo's participation. (Those details here.) Both were healthy, both were active but head coach Jason Garrett deemed them so important to the Cowboys’ potential advance to a Super Bowl that neither played.
This is significant in that the Cowboys are already pretty banged up and really couldn’t afford to sit too many players on Sunday. Heck the Cowboys rebuilt the left side of their line on the fly, inserting Joe Looney at left guard and Emmett Cleary at left tackle. The Cowboys were so thin at offensive line they couldn’t have sat Travis Frederick, Zach Martin and Doug Free if they had wanted to. The same went for the Cowboys’ defensive line, where four linemen were inactive. (Fish reported on Sunday that only 46 healthy players even made the trip to Philly; Along with Tyron Smith, D-linemen Tyrone, Terrell, Thornton and Tank all stayed home.)
One wonders if Lee was in denial even into the fourth quarter, standing on the sidelines with his helmet on. By then Elliott had given up, slipping a sweatshirt on and staring off into space, perhaps contemplating his Ohio State Buckeyes’ loss to the Clemson Tigers on New Year’s Eve.
Fish was in the locker room to visit with both guys.
For Zeke, it was all about deodorizing.
For Lee, it was all about showering.
Elliott’s healthy scratch was a surprise to me. Rookies don’t typically sit at the end of the season. But then again this isn’t your typical rookie campaign. Elliott ends the regular season with 1,631 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. He’s the first rookie since Barry Sanders in 1989 to lead the NFL in rushing. Fun fact — Sanders played 15 of the Lions’ 16 games that season, including the finale for the 7-9 Lions, where he gained 158 yards against Atlanta. Sanders missed one game in October.
Elliott was within shouting distance of Eric Dickerson’s immortal rookie campaign in 1983, which was 1,808 yards rushing. I thought the Cowboys might give him a shot at it, at least for a half of football. That’s about how much I expected Elliott to play. Elliott even warmed up during pre-game as if he would be heading out on the field with his fellow rookie, quarterback Dak Prescott, for the first possession.
He didn’t, and if this doesn’t spell out Elliott’s importance to this offense and to this Super Bowl run I don’t know what else does. He is the Rookie of the Year, in my opinion. As well as Prescott has played this year, this offense is built around Elliott’s talents and without him it will sputter, of that I am completely convinced.
Look at it like this — would you rather have to play Darren McFadden with Prescott or Elliott with Tony Romo? Those are the combinations you’ll get if either Elliott or Prescott get hurt. I’d rather cast my lot with Elliott and Romo, and that, to me, makes Elliott more important than Prescott.
As for Lee, he is to this defense what Elliott is to the offense. But he sat on Sunday because Lee’s injury history demanded it.
Lee hasn’t played an entire 16-game season in his career. We’ve seen him suffer minor injuries and we’ve seen him suffer season-ending injuries. Lee’s playing style endears him to fans, but it also puts him at risk more than other players. Compare it to former Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer. He’s an all-time fan favorite, to be sure. His go-for-broke style playing fly balls was a big part of that, but it also led to injuries that, in some measure, led to a premature end to his career.
Lee is a similar player. There is no lower gear for the way Lee plays, and you love him for it. But it also causes him pain at times and to have him play on Sunday and put himself at risk to absorb that pain and, potentially, miss time would have been foolish.
This Cowboys defense has made huge strides the past six games. I mean, it’s almost bizarre how they keep losing players, either to minor or major injuries, and the unit overall gets better. David Irving and Benson Mayowa are having revelatory Decembers, much like the one DeMarcus Lawrence had two Decembers ago. Anthony Hitchens played great here and has settled in as the perfect running mate for Lee. Without Morris Claiborne the secondary has been solid, and Jerry Jones hopes Claiborne is back for the playoffs.
But losing Lee? That would be a back-breaker. Remember that Giants game on Sunday night a few weeks ago? This defense cannot lose that and expect to help these Cowboys advance to a Super Bowl. It won’t happen. Lee is too vital to what they do and he’s truly the one irreplaceable player on this Cowboys defense.
"We had different objectives going into the game,'' coach Jason Garrett said after the loss that wrapped Dallas' regular season at 13-3. "There were going to be certain guys who weren't going to play because of injury. We held a couple of guys out. We had a plan for a few other guys about how much we wanted them to play. (Rookie QB Dak Prescott being one of those ...)
"Having said that, you decide who you want out there and then you have a standard of performance that you're looking for from everybody. ...We'll clean up this game quickly and get our eyes forward. The only thing that matters is what we do now. We've put ourselves in great position. Time to get back to work.''
We now know the path for the Cowboys fate in the postseason. Their first game is Sunday, Jan. 15, at 3:40, against the Lions if they win at Seattle, or, assuming the Seahawks win this Saturday, against Sunday's winner of Giants-at-Packers. Dallas' playoff games will be at AT&T and the Super Bowl is in Houston ... and Zeke and Sean will be central to the march.
But Elliott and Lee sat on Sunday. It was the right decision by Garrett and his staff. And you’ll be thanking them if this "back-to-work'' postseason goes the way you hope it does.
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