FRISCO, Texas — Now that the Cowboys have released Ezekiel Elliott, he ends his time with the Dallas Cowboys as the third-best running back in franchise history. Only Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett have more, proof of an exceptional career for the former first-round pick.
“We are a better franchise because of the example it set for veterans and rookies alike,” owner Jerry Jones said in a statement released Wednesday.
Elliott is also a cautionary tale about paying running backs.
Both things can be true.
He was only the fifth rookie to lead the league in rushing since the 1970 merger when he finished with 1,613 yards in 2016. He added another rushing title in 2018. A six-game suspension in 2017 kept him from rushing for at least 1,000 yards in 2016. each of its first three seasons.
Along with quarterback Dak Prescott, he energized the team in 2016 to a 13-3 finish, the best record in the NFC. Two years later, they reached the divisional round. In 2019, he added six more 100-yard games to his ledger and finished with 1,357 yards.
Just before the start of the 2019 season, Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million extension that included $50 million in guaranteed money. He resisted boot camp to get the money from him. The Cowboys finally relented.
The decision to make Elliott the highest-paid running back at the time can be criticized now, but it made sense then.
Once the Cowboys took him with the fourth overall pick in 2016, they secured a second contract, as long as he performed, and performed. A team can’t walk away from a top five pick after five years, regardless of position.
You may question the wisdom of taking a runner that high. The alternate option that year was cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but the Cowboys felt Elliott could extend Tony Romo’s career by taking pressure off the veteran quarterback in the same way running back DeMarco Murray did in 2014.
Elliott and Romo never played in a regular season game together because Romo suffered a back injury in the preseason and Prescott never relinquished the starting job.
The Cowboys weren’t unaware of the useful life of running backs when they signed Elliott to the extension. In fact, it can be argued that they had it in mind because the guaranteed money in the contract was made when Elliott was 27 years old. If being 30 was the demarcation line for abandonment, then the Cowboys felt they were on the road. right side of the ledger.
It wasn’t necessarily wrong to pay Elliott when they did. He and his agent, Rocky Arceneaux, used the system to perfection and were helped by the fact that the Cowboys couldn’t get Prescott to agree to a long-term deal. The contract structure also favored Elliott, as his 2022 guarantees were won in 2021.
It just didn’t work.
In 2020, Elliott rushed for 979 yards and only had one 100-yard game. In 2021, he got off to a fast start until a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee limited his burst. He finished with 1,002 yards in 17 games, holding out for most of the season while wearing a brace.
Last season, he rushed for a career-low 876 yards but scored 12 touchdowns. He suffered a hyperextended knee against the Detroit Lions, missed two games and, for the first time, didn’t record a 100-yard start. He continued to be an excellent short-range and goal-line rusher, as well as a dominant pass protector.
However, running backs aren’t paid $15 million a year to protect the quarterback.
The rise of Tony Pollard and the decline of Elliott coincided. Pollard’s speed and vision led to a Pro Bowl season and a $10.091 million franchise tag. When Pollard missed with an ankle injury in the playoffs against San Francisco, the Cowboys’ chances of winning were doomed.
And now the Cowboys face a similar contractual dilemma with Pollard.
Do they pay him a mega contract or play the season on the tag?
The result of Elliott’s extension will probably be enough for the Cowboys to stop.