Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
In the second half of their hideous Thanksgiving Day home performance against the Washington Football Team, the lifeless Dallas Cowboys were trailing by seven points when they were suddenly given a boost by a Jaylon Smith interception that set them up with a first down inside the Washington 5-yard line.
But after $15-million-per-year running back Ezekiel Elliott lost two yards on first down, Mike McCarthy’s offense ran a failed reverse to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and then threw an incomplete pass in an unfavorable spot before settling for a field goal.
That was as close as Dallas would come to erasing a deficit that existed for the entire second half of a winnable game before it eventually turned into a 41-16 WFT blowout.
The aforementioned failed red-zone drive was just one of several instances in which the Cowboys understandably signified their desperation in the embarrassing defeat. They went to Elliott once in a crucial spot and then ignored him for the remainder of the series, just as they did in the second quarter when they neglected their three-time Pro Bowl back on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 before turning it over on downs in what was then a tie game.
And it’s hard to blame them because the two-time NFL rushing king has been more of a liability than an asset throughout the 2020 season.
David Berding/Associated Press
To be clear, Elliott isn’t the problem in Dallas.
The Cowboys of course miss quarterback Dak Prescott, the league’s worst scoring defense surrendered more than 30 points for the sixth time this season Thursday, and against Washington, they were operating without 80 percent of a starting offensive line that was one of the best in football last season.
But there’s nothing they can do about their injuries and little they can currently do about McCarthy’s desperate approach to running the offense. That still doesn’t change the fact Elliott has become part of the problem, which is both unacceptable considering his salary and a shame considering his Hall of Fame career trajectory prior to 2020.
Elliott could use more support, but a player with the most valuable contract in the NFL at his position needs to be capable of overcoming poor quarterback play, questionable play-calling and a lack of offensive line continuity—at least to an extent.
Instead, the 25-year-old’s sixth fumble of the season set the tone for a nightmare second half for a Dallas team that couldn’t recover, literally or figuratively.
Those miscues have killed the Cowboys. Ditto for Elliott’s 3.9 yards-per-attempt average, which didn’t change as he gained just 32 yards on 10 carries against Washington. Among 45 qualified backs, he’s one of just 13 with a sub-4.0 average, but that and his fumble total don’t even tell the whole story.
It’s even more disturbing that Elliott has gained 20 yards on just one carry all season and that said carry ended with a fumble. Runs for 18 and 15 yards last week against the Minnesota Vikings were his first two 15-plus-yard rushes of the 2020 season that didn’t result in a turnover, and he’s still gained more than 12 yards on just four carries this campaign.
A quarter of the league’s starting quarterbacks have rushed for more than 12 yards as often, and 37 running backs—including teammate Tony Pollard—have him beat in that category. That’s despite the fact only three backs have carried the ball more often than Elliott.
Prior to Thursday, he ranked 25th or lower among qualified backs in terms of yards after contact per attempt and attempts per broken tackle, and those numbers won’t likely change for the better after another dud showing against an average run defense on Thanksgiving.
The Cowboys simply aren’t getting what they paid for when they handed Elliott a six-year, $90 million contract with more than $50 million guaranteed last September.
Since then, Elliott’s career 4.7 yards-per-attempt average has dropped to 4.5, and the Cowboys have gone 11-16. They’ve won just one playoff game since using a No. 4 overall draft pick on the highly touted Ohio State product in 2016, and that isn’t on the brink of changing.
Michael David Smith @MichaelDavSmith
If the Cowboys hadn’t extended Ezekiel Elliott, he’d be in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. There is zero chance he’d get a contract as big shopping himself to all 32 teams in free agency in 2021 as the one the Cowboys gave him bidding against themselves in 2019.
The team wasn’t particularly successful when Zeke led the league in rushing yards per game during each of his first three pro seasons. Now, he’s got less support than before and has been significantly less effective, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever get back to that peak form in Dallas.
Elliott might be fading. Twenty-five is young except in the realms of hangover recovery, gymnastics and rushing footballs, and that last part is something he’s done more than any professional athlete in the world since coming into the NFL four-plus years ago.
A decline at this age would be far from unprecedented. Statistically speaking, the heavily used Le’Veon Bell peaked at 24 and 25 years old and hasn’t been the same since. The same is true for Todd Gurley, albeit with a knee injury playing a role. Chris Johnson faded following his All-Pro age-24 season, and Maurice Jones-Drew basically disappeared beyond his age-26 campaign.
It’s possible Elliott will bounce back from this and enjoy a longer run of success, but there are a lot more Bells and Gurleys in the recent history books than there are Adrian Petersons and Frank Gores.
The Cowboys and their fans can only hope this is merely a slump and that Elliott will get back on a Peterson-like track because the franchise is married to him at a rate of $13.7 million in 2021 and $16.5 million with a $10.8 million dead-cap hit in 2022, according to Spotrac.
It’s not a good sign that he has thus far failed to live up to his contract, and it’s a worse sign that the Cowboys are already looking elsewhere in critical moments.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Gagnon.