It’s a good thing for the Cowboys (and the NFL) that they don’t have a game this weekend

 In U.S.

Jerry Jones has said he would bench any Cowboys player who protests during the anthem (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Opening Thought

It’s probably a good thing for both the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL that the Cowboys don’t have a game this weekend, courtesy of their bye week. Some clarity is needed on multiple issues before the Cowboys take the field again.

By the time the Cowboys play Oct. 22 at San Francisco, NFL owners will have had their meeting next Tuesday and Wednesday in New York to make a plan for dealing with the raging controversy over players’ protests during the national anthem.

Meanwhile, the next steps in the legal tussle between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over the on-again, off-again, now-on-again six-game suspension of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott may have at least begun to play out. As things now stand, the Cowboys won’t have Elliott in the lineup when they resume play. But Elliott’s legal representatives have another chance to try to get the suspension placed on hold.

The NFL’s plan for dealing with the anthem controversy could come with the cooperation of the NFLPA; the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, and players are scheduled to attend next week’s meeting. It could involve the league supporting players’ community activism. And it could include owners requiring players to stand for the national anthem.

In the meantime, other teams and their players will have to figure out how to handle the situation at this weekend’s games. For the Miami Dolphins, who play Sunday at Atlanta, that probably means continuing the policy put in place last weekend, when players were required to stand for the anthem if they were on the sideline but they also were given the option to remain instead in the locker room or in the tunnel leading to the field. For other teams, it will mean players making individual decisions, and that likely will result in some players kneeling in protest.

Cowboys players won’t have to face owner Jerry Jones’s stand-or-else proclamation, at least not yet. But the Cowboys’ situation seems more unsettled than that of any other team. Jones said after his team’s loss to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday night in Arlington, Tex., that the Cowboys would bench any player who protests during the anthem and thereby, in Jones’s view, is disrespectful to the American flag. Jones became the first owner to take such a forceful stand against the protests.

Jones’s comments came less than two weeks after he took a knee alongside Cowboys players and coaches, in the wake of President Trump’s initial remarks condemning the players’ protests, before the anthem at a Monday night game at Arizona. Jones and the Cowboys then stood and returned to their sideline, and remained standing for the anthem.

But that solidarity with the players seemed lost by the time Jones spoke last Sunday night. Jones said the Cowboys would refuse to play before they would allow players to, in his words, show disrespect to the flag.

Cowboys players clearly were upset, and Jones met with his players Wednesday. According to a report by ESPN, Jones sought to ease the players’ concerns by telling them that he’d made his public comments, which came after Vice President Pence walked out of a 49ers-Colts game Sunday in Indianapolis and cited the protests, to take public scrutiny off his players and put the focus entirely on him.

Whether that explanation satisfies Cowboys players remains to be seen. The outcome of the owners’ meeting next week will go a long way toward determining how things go from here for the Cowboys and other teams. Will the owners’ plan calm players or anger them? Will players emerge feeling like their input was taken into consideration by the league and owners and incorporated into the anthem plan?

For the Cowboys, there are bye-week issues everywhere they turn.

Elliott’s suspension was reinstated Thursday by the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. A three-judge panel ruled, by a 2-1 margin, that the district court in Texas that granted an injunction to the NFLPA and Elliott, keeping Elliott’s suspension on hold, did not have proper jurisdiction. The NFLPA filed its case in the Texas federal court before Elliott’s appeal before NFL-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson was resolved.

The union had assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that Henderson would uphold the suspension imposed by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and it was attempting to win the race to court to get the venue of its choosing. The NFL subsequently filed a case in New York in a bid to affirm Henderson’s ruling. Now the union’s gambit has failed, and the case in New York could become the active case. The problem for the union in New York is that the case involving Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate suspension played out there, and the appeals court’s decision reinstating Brady’s suspension and reinforcing Goodell’s authority in player discipline applies there as a precedent.

So while the appeals court in New Orleans did not rule on the merits of whether Elliott deserves an injunction — and, in fact, left open the possibility that he might deserve one based on the assertion that the appeals process before Henderson was unfair — the venue matters. The union and Elliott’s lawyers were sifting through their options Thursday. Those options include appealing the ruling of the three-judge panel to the entire appeals court in New Orleans; seeking an injunction or temporary restraining order in New York; or refiling the case in the district court in Texas, although it might be difficult to make that the active case with the New York case already filed.

Elliott very well could be shelved just as the Cowboys seemed to be getting their running game going, given his productive game against the Packers. Things become far more difficult for the Cowboys if they indeed lose Elliott and must patch things together at running back with Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris.

The Cowboys began the season with seemingly realistic Super Bowl aspirations but have a record of 2-3. They were beaten last Sunday night by a late Packers’ touchdown drive orchestrated by the quarterbacking wizardry of Aaron Rodgers, just as Rogers’s late-game magic in the same building ousted the Cowboys from the NFC playoffs in January.

“It’s a new season,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said as the locker room emptied around him late last Sunday night, with Elliott being among the final players to leave. “This team understands year to year you’ve got to adjust to a new season. There’s a lot that you can build on. Certainly a foundation was laid last year. But it’s a new year. We’ve got to reestablish it. I thought we did some good things [against the Packers]…. We were able to move the ball. I feel like we had a good plan against them. It just ultimately wasn’t enough down the stretch.”

It never is, it seems, against Rodgers.

It’s still relatively early in the season and there is plenty of football left to be played. But for the Cowboys, it could become too late relatively quickly if they don’t get things moving in a more positive direction.

Will they end up looking back and concluding that Rodgers played a key role in ruining another season for them?

“In situations like that, sometimes it may seem easy to point a finger,” Witten said after the Green Bay game. “But this team really doesn’t try to do that. We focus on winning and losing together. Give him credit. We’ll go back and look at it and get better. Certainly we’ve got to get going.”

If only it were as easily done as said.

Around the League

Roethlisberger’s words … Ben Roethlisberger spoke of contemplating retirement in the offseason. Then he wondered aloud if he simply can’t do it any more following his five-interception performance in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-touchdown loss last Sunday to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

An athlete openly talking about his own career mortality can mean he already is essentially done as a player. Is that the case with Roethlisberger? Former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said he doesn’t think so.

“For some guys, it does mean that,” Theismann said this week. “In Ben’s case, I don’t think it applies. That was frustration.”

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