The day before the 100th NFL season kicks off, Dallas Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott became the highest paid running back in NFL history with a $90m contract.
The 41-day standoff between Dallas and the 24 year old two-time Pro Bowler came with the Cowboys holding high expectations. In 2018, Dallas had their first playoff win with Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. They have won two NFC East titles in three seasons together.
Over his three seasons with the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliot has racked up impressive statistics. Of the 40 games he’s started, he has amassed 5,247 all purpose yards over 1,003 attempts for 34 touchdowns. He topped the league in rushing yards and attempts in 2016 and 2018, climbing the overall leaderboard for career rushing yards.
How did he get here?
Zeke was a superstar athlete from his high school in Missouri. Elliott was considered the 9th best running back in the country in 2013. Despite his parents attending the University of Missouri, Elliott decided to become an Ohio State Buckeye.
As a sophomore, Elliot became a starter for the Buckeyes and was able to showcase his abilities. He ran for 1,878 yards on 273 attempts. This was the second-most in Ohio State history second only to Eddie George’s 1,927 rushing yards back in 1995. The Academic All-Big Ten Conference team named Elliott a starter. He also became only the third Buckeye to top 2,000 all-purpose yards in a season.
In his final year as a Buckeye, he went from strength to strength. He rushed for 1821 yards on 289 attempts for 23 touchdowns. This allowed him to finish his career at Ohio State second in career rushing yards, behind Archie Griffin (5,589) and ahead of Eddie George (3,768), with 3,961 yards.
Zeke will be remembered as one of the best running backs in Ohio State history.
The 2015 wasn’t particularly great for Dallas finishing the year 4-12. It was the team’s worst record since 1989, in Jerry Jones’ first year as owner when they went 1–15. Their collapse from a 2-0 start was because of injuries to tight end Jason Witten and quarterback at the time, Tony Romo.
They had lost superstar back DeMarco Murray in the 2014 season, and signed Darren McFadden to a 2 year deal as a replacement. While not a bad starter for the team, he only managed to run in 3 touchdowns, and averaged under 70 yards per game. WIth Tyler Clutts and Robert Turbin as the other choices, Dallas’s running game lacked depth.
Consequently, Dallas held the 4th round overall pick in the 2016 and knew exactly who they needed. Elliot became the highest drafted running back since Cleveland picked Trent Williams’ in 2012.
Elliott found a home in head coach Jason Garrett’s young offense. He had 1,994 all purpose yards on 382 attempts. He was selected for the Pro Bowl after leading the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards. Elliott was also responsible for 15 touchdowns. Not bad for a rookie.
Zeke’s arrival in Dallas coincided with quarterback Dak Prescott securing the starting job. The Cowboys ended up with a 13-3 winning record, only losing to Philadelphia in the postseason.
It changed the perception of Dallas as a serious contender in the NFC, and gave Cowboys fans a hint of success similar to their former glory.
NFC Championship and off field drama
The following season started badly for Elliott and Dallas. In July after his former Girlfriend filed allegations in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. This dominated the narrative for the offseason. Despite never being formally charged, Elliott was issued with the the league standard 6 week suspension for domestic violence. In week 10, Elliott agreed to serve the entire 6 week suspension.
Elliott is no stranger to off the field issues. During the preseason Elliott was spotted in a marijuana shop in Seattle. Elliot was also involved in a bar fight in Dallas a week before the 2017 training camp.
The 2017 season ended 9-7 after suffering 3 straight losses without Zeke on the team. 4 of the 7 losses the team amassed took place while Elliot was off the team.
The 2018 season fared better for the Cowboys, with minimal Zeke drama. He stayed quiet, out of trouble and spoke at length at wanting to become a leader for the Cowboys after tight end Jason Witten retired. It worked, too, with a Dak led offense making the NFC divisional game, helped in large part by Zeke’s 2,001 all purpose yards for 4 touchdowns.
Garrett and the rest of the staff have made it no secret that they’ve shaped their strategy around the Dak and Zeke connection. They’ve signed rookies to add depth to the offensive line, and have signed right tackle La’el Collins to a two year, $15.4m extension . This will make sure Dak stays protected and Elliott can push his way through.
Driven by self belief, Elliott held out for 41 days for a more favourable contract extension. “I believe I’m the best” was his justification. With stats like his, it’s hard to argue with him.
Owner Jerry Jones has continued to side with Elliott, too, highlighting Dallas’ support of the running back. While the issues around his suspension were happening, he took time out of his induction festivities into the Hall of Fame to say he didn’t think Zeke should be suspended. It’s a testament to the talent of Zeke that someone with a colourful history is the core of the Dallas offense.
Elliott’s $90m contract with $50m guaranteed has raised the stakes for running backs in the NFL. LA Chargers running back Melvin Gordon will be looking at this hold out as a model for his own contract battle.
Ezekiel Elliot’s historic contract is significant as the 100th season of football kicks off. It’s likely he’ll reach new heights and be remembered for a long time. In true Zeke fashion, perhaps he planned it that way.
Header image source: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press