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Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott gets back on the field, but his day in court is still coming

Running back granted a reprieve by a federal judge has steady outing against the Giants

ARLINGTON, Texas — The off-the-field battle to determine whether Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott will serve a six-game suspension was a matter for another day. The truth is, it’s still unknown what will happen after the league office and the NFL Players Association complete their legal wrangling over the punishment Elliott received stemming from an accusation that he beat his former girlfriend. What’s crystal clear, however, is that with Elliott in the Cowboys’ lineup, the rest of the NFL has a big problem.

Granted a reprieve by a federal judge, Elliott returned to work Sunday night — and then he put in work. Last season’s league rushing champion topped 100 yards again to lead the Cowboys to a 19-3 opening-week victory over the New York Giants, who sputtered offensively without injured star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Although Elliott didn’t produce the highlight-worthy runs that defined his spectacular rookie season a year ago, his workmanlike effort (Elliott’s longest rush was 10 yards) was good enough as the Cowboys faced a weakened NFC East rival to kick off the season on their home field.

With each powerful move, Elliott reminded us why the Cowboys were downright ornery about the prospect of being without him for a big chunk of the season. Quarterback Dak Prescott also is among the NFL’s brightest young stars. Dez Bryant still can be as good as it gets at wideout. And any list of the league’s best offensive lines must include the Cowboys’ unit. But Elliott makes the Cowboys special. No one needs to remind them.

“He’s such a well-rounded back. He’s so dynamic. You see that. We all see that,” All-Pro center Travis Frederick said. “Yes, we have confidence in all of our backs. But you have somebody at that level, obviously, it helps the team.”

Said Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ owner and general manager, “I saw a player that when he was out there … it looked really impressive. When anybody else was in there [at running back], it didn’t look as impressive.”

On Sunday, Elliott helped with his eighth game of more than 100 yards rushing (he finished with 104 on 24 carries) in only 16 career games. He also had a 30-yard reception. Elliott’s steady outing enabled Dallas to control the ball and take a 13-3 halftime lead. The Giants never got it going as Beckham watched from the sideline because of an ankle problem.

Early last week, Dallas feared it would be without Elliott to start the season.

After the league investigated the domestic violence accusation from July 2016, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Elliott for the Cowboys’ first six games. Elliott was not charged in the matter, with prosecutors citing inconsistent statements from witnesses in making their decision.

The players’ association appealed the suspension, arguing, among other things, that Goodell did not consider the opinion of the league’s own investigator, who would not have recommended discipline for Elliott based on what she found. The NFL, which is sensitive to accusations of domestic violence because of its bungling of the Ray Rice situation in 2014, maintained that it had made the right decision.

A league-appointed arbitrator upheld the suspension, but Elliott was cleared to play in the opener because of a technicality involving the timing of the ruling. The union, in response to the arbitrator’s decision, sought an injunction in federal court in Texas. The injunction was granted, and it could take months for the case to finally be heard, meaning Elliott could complete the season. Whether the league’s action was appropriate or an overreach, this is where things currently stand. And it’s a mess.

Speaking with reporters for the first time since minicamp in June, Elliott opened up about his outlook on his battle with the NFL. “It just feels good to be out here with these boys. Definitely been a tough last 14 months,” Elliott said late Sunday night in the Cowboys’ locker room, surrounded by a throng of reporters, cameramen and people directing boom mics at him.

“At times it’s gotten so hard, and you start to lose faith. But just being able to come in and be with these boys every day has kept me focused and made me not give up and keep going. … Just kind of your name being dragged through the mud for 14 months, just kind of being associated with that, that’s tough.”

Elliott’s teammates admired that he “compartmentalized all of that,” Frederick said. “We didn’t hear any of it in the locker room. And he was ready to play this week.”

The Cowboys definitely got what they wanted.

“Every person a part of the Cowboys was lifted by that decision. It was a good one,” Jones said. “He was playing in this game no matter [after the injunction was granted], but the idea that we can have him for an extended period of time was certainly inspirational.”

For the Cowboys, indeed. With Elliott, they’re a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But there’s still the issue of Elliott’s suspension for, the league believes, the domestic violence he committed. And that’s not going away.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.