Last summer, running back Ezekiel Elliott was staying at the Diamante Cabo San Lucas Resort, in the middle of a contract dispute, while his Dallas Cowboys teammates were in Oxnard, California, for training camp.
Elliott was working out on his own at a makeshift workout area between two fairways on the Dunes Course, while his teammates practiced next to the River Ridge Golf Course where golfers could heckle or applaud the players before teeing off on the 18th hole.
Less than a week before the 2019 season started, Elliott ended his holdout with a six-year, $90 million extension that included $50 million guaranteed that made him the richest running back in NFL history.
He followed that with 1,357 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns and 54 catches for 420 yards and two touchdowns but admits it was not the season he wanted. And this summer, Elliott is in attendance for Cowboys’ training camp, but the challenge is different. For the first time in his pro career, Elliott has a new coach in Mike McCarthy and at least a partially altered offense.
“It did take me a little bit,” Elliott said. “But I’m a football player. I think I was ready. It’s definitely going to be better to have the training camp this year to make sure I’m rolling Week 1.”
McCarthy applauds Elliott’s professionalism.
“He pretty much sits in the front row, asks great questions, very intelligent football player, has a complete understanding of what we’re doing. As you can see, the conversion from the existing offense that was carried over from last year and the new things we’ve added, he’s been seamless,” McCarthy said. “[Elliott’s] part of the leadership group, as I view it, of our football team. So he’s off to a great start. He’s a true pro. I’ve been impressed.”
As a head coach, McCarthy has not had a running back as accomplished as Elliott. As offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, McCarthy had running backs Ricky Williams and Deuce McAllister thrive. Because of how much the Green Bay Packers leaned to the pass, especially late in his tenure with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, there was a feeling when McCarthy came to Dallas that perhaps Elliott would not be used as much, despite the coach’s saying the running back will continue to be the focus of the Cowboys’ offense.
Elliott, 25, isn’t concerned with a change in workload given McCarthy’s arrival or the addition of 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb, who will give the Cowboys a top receiver trio with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.
“We have a lot of weapons, but I think we’re going to run the ball and spread the ball around,” Elliott said.
Where Elliott struggled last season was in explosive runs. His four runs of at least 20 yards were the fewest among the top 10 rushers in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb led the league with 11 runs of at least 20 yards.
From 2016 through 2018, Elliott led the NFL with 30 runs of at least 20 yards.
“Shoot, I don’t know,” Elliott said when asked why there was a decline in 2019. “Just finishing, got to make more guys miss in open field.”
McCarthy’s review of Elliott’s 2019 season does not lead to major worry, either.
“The guy I saw on film was the guy who was 4-plus [yard] runs every time he touched the ball,” McCarthy said. “If you look at his averages and if you break it down by his outside zone and his inside zone and his tight zone runs, he runs the ball very well. There is no flaws there as far as him as a runner. You can see on the screens some of the big plays he did have. He finished runs. He finished plays. His ability to be a multiple-run force runner is something we will definitely utilize.”
Elliott came in as the league’s third-ranked rusher behind the New York Giants‘ Saquon Barkley and the Carolina Panthers‘ Christian McCaffrey in an ESPN+ poll ranking the NFL’s top 10 running backs earlier this summer, but Elliott took exception on social media to one comment: “Very few breakout runs, doesn’t look as strong anymore,” said one NFL offensive coach who voted him outside of the top 10. “Feels like he’s about 60 to 70% of what he was.”
Elliott said Monday he believes he still has a lot to prove despite three Pro Bowl appearances in four seasons and two rushing titles in his three full seasons.
“We all know how valuable Zeke is and what he brings to us,” Cowboys’ All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “People want to question him, that’s better for us. We’re going to get a hungry Zeke like we always do. I’m looking forward to it.”