Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott played hurt, and looks like damaged goods | Opinion

Ron Jenkins/AP

Ezekiel Elliott will need to hire his own PR team and a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm to convince us that he’s still the same.

The Dallas Cowboys have reached that point all of their fans feared when the team made Zeke the highest-paid running back in the NFL.

Credit Zeke, and his agent, for holding out in September of 2019 before agreeing to that six-year, $90 million contract, which included $50 million in guarantees.

Blame Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and team vice president Stephen Jones, who didn’t want their best offensive player missing games, thus jeopardizing their chances at a Super Bowl-type of a season.

However since singing Zeke to that big contract, the Cowboys have won zero playoff games.

After watching Zeke play in the second half of this 2021 season, and specifically the Cowboys’ 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the NFC wild-card round, he looks done.

Not long after the game was over, Zeke said he was playing with a partially torn posterior cruciate (PCL). He said he does not believe the tear will require surgery in the offseason.

“It was hard. It’s never fun being banged up. But it’s my job to make sure I get my body right and be ready for this team, for the fanbase and for the coaches. It’s hard, but that’s my job,” Elliott told the media after the game.

“It was an injury that wasn’t going to get worse, but it was just going to take time.”

Exactly how much this injury slowed Zeke during the season no one can quantify, but it does explain why his production fell to worrisome levels.

Whatever your thoughts are about Zeke, adjust them for this fun fact: He’s coming back in 2022 as the team’s top running back.

And you can thank that contract for that. Zeke is due a guaranteed $12.4 million next season, which effectively means the team has no choice but to bring him back for another run at glory.

Against the 49ers on Sunday, other than his ability as a blocker, Zeke had two speeds — slow and slower. He carried the ball 12 times for 31 yards, and caught one pass for 0 yards.

His line was terrible, but he was unable to do much of anything, either.

He remains the best blocking running back in the NFL, but the Cowboys need more from Zeke other than an unintentional tryout to play right guard.

Between the injuries he sustained this season, and the lack of first-step pop that he once possessed in his first two years, this development was unavoidable for Zeke.

It’s the same for most NFL running backs.

There was a reason why Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy limited Zeke to standing on the sidelines as if in some sort of bubble wrap throughout training camp and the preseason.

McCarthy realized his best running back led the NFL in touches, and therefore the only priority was health.

Zeke has played 88 regular season games, and run the ball 1,650 times. He’s also caught 288 passes.

No matter what steps McCarthy took, nothing was going to stop this scenario from happening. He was bound to slow down or get hurt. Unfortunately, the “or” became an “and.”

After a Week 1 performance where offensive coordinator Kellen Moore relegated Zeke to a full-time blocker, he came out and looked like one of the best running backs in the NFL. In Weeks 4 and 5, he ran for well over 100 yards in wins against the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants.

It was in that win against Carolina in Week 4 he sustained a knee injury, and he fought it the rest of the way. He has not eclipsed 100 yards over the last 13 games.

In the final 12 regular season games, he averaged 3.6 yards per carry, and 45 yards rushing per game.

He should have missed a couple of games, at least, but neither he, nor the Cowboys, thought his condition would improve with rest.

It didn’t help that his backup, Tony Pollard, was dealing with an injury of his own, and is not trusted in pass blocking like Zeke.

So he kept playing, no matter how badly it looked.

At one point, he put on a large knee brace, something normally only reserved for linemen, and the occasional linebacker. You never see a running back wearing a knee brace.

Despite the lack of production, no one can say Zeke dogged it, or that he doesn’t care.

Also, Ezekiel Elliott will soon be a 27-year-old NFL running back with six years of NFL starts on his body.

These things add up, but no matter how the math looks that contract will bring him back for one more year.

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