The Cowboys star under the most pressure to deliver this season may not be Dak Prescott

·Columnist
·5-min read

Even with HBO cameras following the Dallas Cowboys everywhere, the two biggest question marks surrounding the team’s two biggest stars with the two biggest contracts remain mostly unanswered.

A strained muscle in the throwing shoulder for Dak Prescott — he of the injury-shortened 2020 and four-year, $160 million contract extension — means practices filled mostly with mental reps and perhaps no on-field action until the regular-season opener against Tampa Bay on Sept. 9.

“It’s a plan of caution,” head coach Mike McCarthy said.

There is a similar lack of clarity when it comes to the other pillar of the Cowboys' offense: running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Zeke’s issues may not be as pronounced as Prescott’s — how will he respond to the injury and a big money deal? — but the pressure to deliver a big season might actually be greater.

Elliott underperformed last season, his fifth in the league, as the Cowboys went 6-10. No one knows it more than him.

“I think the hardest part about last year is you feel like you let your teammates down,” Elliott said. “That hurts … Just having the year I had last year, you don’t need more motivation than that. I just know the type of player I am. I don’t think I showed that last year. I’ve got a lot to prove.”

In response, he dropped weight (from 228 to 218) in an effort to find old explosiveness and move into, perhaps, a more modern workload for a back. McCarthy said he might not run Zeke at all this preseason in an effort to preserve him. He hasn’t dressed in the Cowboys' first two exhibition games and won’t play in the fourth. Maybe he goes for a bit Saturday against the Houston Texans. Or maybe not.

Nobody knows Ezekiel Elliott struggled in 2020 and needs to bounce back in 2021 better than Ezekiel Elliott. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Nobody knows Ezekiel Elliott struggled in 2020 and needs to bounce back in 2021 better than Ezekiel Elliott. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

So, at least when it comes to "Hard Knocks" footage, there has been a few Elliott runs during no-contact practices, a botched birthday present wrapping job and a lot of handing out sunflower seeds on the sideline. In other words, not much,

“He’s in much better shape this year,” McCarthy offered.

That much is clear. He looks lean. He looks fast. That McCarthy isn’t concerned should be a ray of positivity, not just about what Elliott might be capable of this season but how he’ll be used.

Elliott’s durability has been his calling card dating back to Ohio State. Whether in college or the NFL, coaches saw a man built like a small tank and they tried to ride him to victory — 28 carries, 30 carries, 33 carries, 36 even. This was a lead back. A throwback. A workhorse.

He never tired. He never slowed. He never got hurt.

He’s also 26 now and coming off a season when his production tanked for obvious reasons.

It wasn’t just the career-lows in yards (979), yards per attempt (4) or touchdowns (6). It was, per Pro Football Focus statistics, the yards after contact (2.82, down from 3.23 in 2019), rushes over 10 yards (22, down from 38 in 2019) and breakaway percentage (11.6, down from 36.7 in 2018).

Zeke was plodding. He was dragging. He ranked 21st in the league in causing missed tackles. When defenders got a hold of him, he mostly went down. Or fumbled (six times). He wasn’t what he was.

You could point to Prescott’s absence after a Week 5 injury. It allowed defenses to key up on stopping the run. Elliott’s backup, Tony Pollard, didn’t struggle in this manner. The second-year back out of Memphis didn’t get Elliott’s workload (101 carries to Zeke’s 244), but he was better in nearly every per attempt metric, including all of the aforementioned.

Elliott is the starter and Pollard is the backup. But it stands to reason the line will get blurrier this year, which is part of why McCarthy isn’t trying to run Zeke in the preseason.

This would be the continuation of a new, but inevitable, trend. During his four years playing for Jason Garrett, Elliott averaged 20.9 carries per game. His final two seasons at Ohio State, it was 20.1.

Under McCarthy last year, it dropped to 16.3. Here’s guessing it goes even lower.

A quicker, fresher Elliott may be the only way the Cowboys can squeeze requisite production out of a contract that will cost them $13.7 million against the salary cap this year, per Spotrac.

It’s the most of any running back in the league. Tennessee’s Derrick Henry is second at $13.5 million. He's coming off a 2,027-yard, 17-touchdown season that saw PFF grade him out as the NFL’s top back. Elliott was 62nd. Pollard was 17th.

Fewer carries may be counterintuitive, considering Elliott’s work rate was a big reason why the Cowboys paid big for a running back in an era when you’re not supposed to pay big for a running back.

But here we are. Dallas desperately needs a huge season out of its run game, and a more balanced Elliott-Pollard tandem may be the only way.

Mike McCarthy might be showing exactly that by what isn’t being shown on HBO.

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