Don't blame Zeke's suspension -- or the NFL -- for Cowboys' disappointing season

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) takes the field for action against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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The roughly-seven-month countdown to training camp 2018 begins Sunday evening for the Dallas Cowboys. For that time, Cowboys fans can stew over another average, 9-7 season that has become all too familiar over the last 22 years.

Salty supporters will blame the six-game suspension of star running back Ezekiel Elliott over never-proven domestic violence allegations from the week of Elliott’s 21st birthday in 2016.

Don’t.

While taking the best player off the field for more than one-third of a season is never a boon to a team’s chances at a Super Bowl run, the Cowboys still had plenty of opportunities in 2017. 

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Want to blame that daunting “first-place schedule” we’ve been obsessing over for five months? Don’t. It only presented the Cowboys with four opponents who finished the season with a winning record. Dallas only won two of those games, one coming in Sunday's finale against the Eagles' second string.

In one of the games against a better-than-.500 opponent, against the Rams in Week 4, the Cowboys were outscored 21-6 in the second half, blowing a lead that was as big as 11 early on.

The next week, Dallas was blown out 29-10 over the final 21 minutes, again surrendering a halftime lead and handing Green Bay a victory.

Ezekiel Elliott started both of those games.

In Week 16, in Elliott’s return, the coaching staff elected not to give it to their savior on the goal line, foregoing points en route to a loss with the season on the line. 

The Cowboys laid three consecutive eggs in Weeks 11, 12 and 13, the first three weeks of Elliott’s suspension. But it wasn’t Elliott who injured Tyron Smith, and it wasn’t Elliott who chose not to give Chaz Green any help against Adrian Clayborn, who recorded six sacks in the Cowboys’ loss to Atlanta. 

It wasn’t Elliott who refused to play any defense against the then-high-flying Eagles in Week 11, allowing 30 unanswered points in the second half. 

It wasn’t Elliott who put up an embarrassing performance at home against the not-very-good Los Angeles Chargers on Thanksgiving Day.

It wasn’t Elliott who dropped 12 passes and gave up on routes throughout the season. It wasn’t Elliott who caused Sean Lee to miss five games. It wasn’t Elliott who threw 13 interceptions and failed to throw for 200 yards in eight different contests. It wasn’t Elliott who necessitated significant playing time for three rookies in the secondary.

Do you get my point?

And don’t hit me with talk about “distractions.” Sure, there were myriad headlines about Zeke that had nothing to do with football -- I wrote a good number of them, so I get it. But a franchise that still alleges to be “America’s Team” may never escape that kind of scrutiny. If it wasn’t Zeke, it would’ve been something else -- from Dez Bryant’s hot head to the owner spewing off about anthem protests or the commissioner’s contract, the Dallas Cowboys have plenty of “distractions.” They always will, the way the team is run.

So don’t blame Ezekiel Elliott -- or the big, bad NFL commissioner -- for the Cowboys’ ineptitude in 2017. The Cowboys had plenty of chances, even without their running back, and didn’t capitalize. And plenty more things went wrong for the team, none of which wear No. 21 and were never accused of hitting their former girlfriend.

Blaming Elliott is a failure to recognize all that is wrong with the Cowboys. Blame the collective group that squandered four halftime leads. Blame a blasée coaching staff that put together a predictable game plan week in and week out. Blame a quarterback who saw a substantial (but not catastrophic) drop-off in his second season. Blame the receivers who couldn’t catch his passes.

Related: Dez Bryant: 'I let a lot of things get in the way' during mediocre season

Blame injuries if you want, but put just as much blame on a front office that didn’t equip the roster with the depth to be prepared for those injuries. 

There’s plenty of blame to go around. And, unless there are changes made in the coaching staff and shrewd decisions made in the draft and free agency, we’ll do it all again in about seven months.