Ezekiel Elliott shined for Cowboys, but exits as a warning about paying Tony Pollard
FRISCO, Texas. Now that the Cowboys have released Ezekiel Elliott, he is ending his time with the Dallas Cowboys as the third-best in franchise history. Only Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett have more, proof of the former first-round pick’s exceptional success.
“We’re better than the franchise because of the example he set for veterans and rookies alike,” owner Jerry Jones said in a statement released Wednesday.
Elliot is also a cautionary tale about how to pay off running backs.
Both things may be true.
He was only the fifth rookie to lead the league in rushing since the 1970 merger, when he finished with 1,613 rushing yards in 2016. He added another rush title in 2018. each of its first three seasons.
Along with quarterback Duck Prescott, he energized the team in 2016 to go 13-3, the best record in the NFC. They advanced to the divisional round two years later. In 2019, he added six more 100-yard games to his roster and finished with 1,357 yards.
Shortly before the start of the 2019 season, Elliot signed a six-year, $90 million extension that included $50 million in guaranteed money. He stayed out of training camp to get his money. The cowboys eventually gave up.
The decision to make Elliot the highest paid runner at the time might be heavily criticized now, but it made some sense back then.
After the Cowboys took him at No. 4 in 2016, they signed him to a second contract on the condition that he perform – and he does. A team cannot leave the top five after five years, regardless of position.
You may question the wisdom of running so high. The fallback that year was cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but the Cowboys felt Elliott could prolong Tony Romo’s career by taking the pressure off the seasoned quarterback, as running back DeMarco Murray did in 2014.
Elliott and Romo never played together in regular season games because Romo suffered a back injury in the preseason and Prescott never quit a starting job.
The Cowboys knew about the expiration date of the runners when they signed Elliot for an extension. In fact, you could argue that they meant it because the guaranteed money under the contract was paid out by the time Elliott was 27 years old. right side of the ledger.
It wasn’t necessarily wrong to pay Elliott when they did it. He and his agent Rocky Arceno played the system well, helped by the fact that the Cowboys failed to convince Prescott to agree to a long-term deal. The contract structure also favored Elliott as his 2022 guarantees were earned in 2021.
It just didn’t work.
In 2020, Elliott rushed for 979 yards and only had one 100-yard rushing 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, gutting him for most of the season by wearing a brace.
Last season, he rushed for a career-high 876 yards but threw for 12 touchdowns. Against the Detroit Lions, he badly sprained his knee, missed two games, and missed his first 100-yard turn. He remained an excellent short-range and goal-line defender, as well as a dominant passing guard.
However, running backs are not paid $15 million a year to protect a passer.
The rise of Tony Pollard and the fall of Elliott coincided. Pollard’s speed and vision led to a Pro Bowl season and a $10.091 million franchise. When Pollard lost with an ankle injury in the playoffs against San Francisco, the Cowboys’ chances of winning were doomed.
And now the Cowboys are facing a similar contract dilemma with Pollard.
Do they pay him a mega contract or finish the season on the tag?
The way Elliot’s expansion turned out is probably enough to give the Cowboys pause.