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The NFL has finally dropped the hammer on Ezekiel Elliott, and it’s frankly terrible news for the Dallas Cowboys.

According to reports from ESPN, Elliott has been suspended for the first six games of Dallas’ season. Here’s Todd Archer of ESPN explaining the news.

“The suspension comes as a result of an investigation that started more than a year ago after an ex-girlfriend accused Elliott of domestic violence in Columbus, Ohio. The Columbus City Attorney’s office announced in September that it would not pursue charges against Elliott because of “conflicting and inconsistent information,” but the NFL can penalize a player even without legal charges.”

Archer reports that Elliott is expected to appeal the suspension and he has three business days to file the notice of appeal. A hearing will then be scheduled and either NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or a designee will hear it.

That’s all up in the air, though, and considering how long the NFL took to come to this conclusion and the investigation that went into it, the Cowboys may as well start planning for life without Elliott — or at least six games without him.

And that’s, unfortunately, going to be easier said than done for Dallas, which looked to be gearing up for a run to the Super Bowl before this news broke. Elliott was one of the best offensive players in the game last season, let alone one of the best running backs. He rushed 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns while also catching 32 passes for 363 yards and a score — all as a rookie, mind you.

Elliott was the centerpiece of Dallas’ power-heavy offense and he was a revelation behind that big, strong offensive line.

(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

At least for now, the Cowboys will have to turn to the stable approach at running back. The good news is they still have a strong offensive line to run behind. The bad? Darren McFadden is somewhat of an unknown after a 2016 season that saw him rush only 24 times, Rod Smith spent the end of last season on the practice squad and Alfred Morris is two seasons removed from his last 1,000-yard season. He could bounce back now that there’s an opening, but he’s another unknown for Dallas. Dallas did bring in Ronnie Hillman at the end of July, but he played for two teams in 2016 and didn’t score a single touchdown.

As backup running backs, McFadden, Smith, Morris, or Hillman would all be solid. As potential starters, though, the Cowboys can’t be feeling too good about that.

Ultimately, this puts the pressure squarely on second-year quarterback Dak Prescott, and the irony in that is that we’ve spent a whole offseason hearing about how much of the real deal he really is. Everybody has been praising Prescott and he’s certainly deserved it. He was the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 2017 and he was perhaps the main reason Dallas ended up being the top seed in the 2017 NFC playoffs.

As a rookie, Prescott played with poise beyond his years. He completed 311-of-459 passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns — compared to just four interceptions.

He led Dallas’ offense with the poise of an Aaron Rodgers despite the fact that he entered the NFL as an unheralded fourth round draft pick. He was consistent with his throws and even made defenses pay with his feet, rushing for 282 yards and six touchdowns.

He was not just the present for Dallas at the time, but he quickly became the future. So much so that longtime Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo couldn’t make his way back into the starting lineup once he got healthy, and he ultimately decided to retire and talk about football in the television booth instead.

2016 was monumental for Prescott, but 2017 has now become even more important

Expectations were already high for Prescott, but he had a lot to lean back on if the going ever got tough. After all, a running back like Elliott is a luxury that not every quarterback has, and Dallas’ strong running game in 2016 definitely made life much easier for its rookie quarterback.

He may not have that luxury anymore for much of 2017.

If Prescott really is as good as many think he is, that won’t be much of an issue. He’ll be able to shoulder Dallas’ offense, make do with who’s behind him in the backfield and put the team on his back. He’ll take care of the football, make big-time throws to move the ball downfield and keep the defense honest with his feet — which is what Elliott would have done for him.

After all, Rodgers won a Super Bowl with James Starks in the backfield. Tom Brady has won multiple Super Bowls without star skill players around him. The truly great ones make those around them better, and that’s what Prescott is going to have to do for the first six games of Dallas’ season if Elliott’s suspension does hold up.

In fact, that’s what he’s going to have to do during the entirety of the 2017 season and beyond because that’s what great quarterbacks do.

The 2017 season is not a make or break year for Prescott — not even close.

It’s shaping up to be quite a revelatory season for him, though, because either we’ll find out of the hype from the 2016 season is real or he’ll find himself a bit exposed without a great running back behind him.

Only time will tell, but the clock has started ticking.

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