Ezekiel Elliott has become the Cowboys’ unsolvable problem

There’s a “Cowboys killer” on the loose, and the call is coming from inside the house. Jerry Jones called RB Ezekiel Elliott the Dallas Cowboys’ “best football player” on a radio show last week. But with his fifth lost fumble of the 2020 season and just 32 rushing yards in the 41-16 Cowboys blowout loss to the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving Day, Elliott proved that not only is he one of the Cowboys’ biggest problems this year, but he’s also a primary obstacle standing between the team and success in future years as well.

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott 2020 season recap

Elliott currently ranks sixth in the NFL with 707 rushing yards, which doesn’t look so bad on paper. But Elliott leads all running backs with six total fumbles. He is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, and he is likely to fall from the sixth spot in the ranking once other running backs play their 11th games of the year. 

Elliott’s worst performances coincide with the Cowboys’ toughest losses. He lost two fumbles in the 38-10 Week 6 embarrassment at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. Early-game fumbles by Elliott and Dak Prescott helped the Cleveland Browns pull away in Week 4. Even when he’s not coughing up footballs the way a toddler coughs up Spaghetti O’s when tickled for too long, Elliott is still struggling when the Cowboys need him most: Elliott rushed a total of 51 times for 148 yards (2.9 yards per carry), one touchdown and just 52 rushing yards in the Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Philadelphia Eagles losses combined.

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The Cowboys RB has also become a tentative runner this season. Per Sports Info Solutions, he averages just 2.3 yards after contact per carry entering Week 11, 55th in the NFL and a lower rate than teammate Tony Pollard at 3.1 yards per carry. (Prescott averaged 2.7 yards after contact per carry before getting hurt).

The film shows that Elliott is often eager to run out of bounds or hit the deck after contact, especially after he has served up his obligatory first fumble of the game. That ineffectiveness after contact may be why Elliott has only carried 20-plus times once since Week 2, and why head coach Mike McCarthy has been more inclined to call low-percentage passing plays on 4th-and-short than feed the ball to his bell cow. Of course, it has also proven risky this season to assume that McCarthy is ever making a correct decision on purpose.

Despite Ezekiel Elliott’s woes, he still has a staunch defender in team owner and emperor Jerry Jones,  “I think you’re selling him short,” Jones said in his weekly radio address last Friday on 105.3 The Fan, Texas’ #1 source of self-generated Cowboys controversies.

“I know the impact he has on opposing defenses. I know what I see him do relative to the kind of thing he brings to football. His physicalness, his enthusiasm … He’s our best football player. He’s our best one. And having said that, we just got to have more chances to expose him to the defense and we’re going to do that.”

It sure sounds like ol’ Jerrah is both out of sync with his head coach and out of touch with reality when it comes to Zeke. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The Ezekiel Elliott-Mike McCarthy-Jerry Jones dilemma

With a running back contract of this magnitude, the butterfly effect spreads its wings. Can the Dallas trinity exorcise the demons? If not, who is the scapegoat?

Zeke gets paid: uh oh!

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is in the second year of a six-year, $90-million contract. That deal may go down in history as one of the worst running back contracts in history, as well as perhaps Jones’ second-biggest career blunder. (Nothing will top fomenting a feud with Jimmy Johnson over who should take credit for the Cowboys’ 1990s success).  

As you no doubt recall, Jones signed Elliott to that quarterback-sized deal just before the 2019 season, when he was frustrated with his inability to sign Prescott and blinked in a staring contest/training camp holdout with Elliott. This season, Elliott’s contract (coupled with Prescott earning the franchise tag tender instead of receiving a cap-manageable long-term deal) ate up cap space, which forced the Cowboys to part ways with needed rank-and-file defenders and hamstrung the team when trying to make free-agent acquisitions.

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Next season, Ezekiel Elliott will cost the Cowboys $13.7 million in cap space (against a depleted cap), and he will be far more expensive to cut than to retain. And no, Cowboys fans, no one is going to trade a second-round pick for Elliott and his budget-bloating contract.

At best, Elliott bounces back in 2021 and becomes a typical overpaid running paid who is about 10% better than Pollard for more than 10 times the price. At worst, he continues to be a fumble dispensary who costs the team a chance to run away with the weakest division in American professional sports.

Can the Cowboys escape RB contract purgatory?

The best thing for the Cowboys to do at this point would be to bench Ezekiel Elliott, relegating him to bottom-of-the-committee status for the rest of this season and 2021. That would require Jones to admit a mistake, or for McCarthy to boldly act stand up to the Almighty Jerrah. Neither is going to happen.

Jones’ talk-radio mandates have long shaped Cowboys operational policy, and McCarthy is skating on such thin ice in his first-and-maybe-last season as the Cowboys head coach that his smartest career move will be to go along to get along and have any inclinations to challenge Jones rubbed out of him on the massage table.

Stubborn Jones. An overmatched, reluctant coach whose only move is acquiescence. An overpaid, “untouchable” player. It’s the classic Cowboys love triangle, as well as a Bermuda Triangle the team never manages to escape. But this time, the Elliott-McCarthy-Jones dilemma threatens to swallow the team’s future as well as the present. 

What’s next for the Dallas Cowboys

The 3-8 Cowboys, heaven help us, can still win the NFC East, though a 1-3 record within the division makes them long shots. They finish the season with a very winnable four-game Cincinnati Bengals-San Francisco 49ers-Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants run; wins in the last two games could propel them to the division title.

McCarthy wouldn’t dare bench the Cowboys RB for the remainder of the season, but increasing Pollard’s role so their split of the backfield touches is closer to 50-50 would at least mitigate the fumble risk, give more opportunities to a player who has earned them and allow McCarthy to focus on his other problems (pass protection, sluggish defense, soft tackling, dippy trick plays, his own staggering ineptitude). 

Once the Cowboys season ends, either with a 6-10 finish or a Wild Card round spanking by Tom Brady (or, ugh, both), Jones must make a decision about McCarthy while figuring out how to fit the returning Prescott under the salary cap. Ezekiel Elliott impacts both decisions. Yet Jones won’t do anything about Elliott because he doesn’t want to, and he made a foolish choice in the past which will stand in the way of a wise one in the future. 

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