Elliott has led the league in rushing in two of his first three seasons, and in rushing yards per game in all three. His rookie contract pays him $3.9 million this season and, with the Cowboys having picked up his fifth-year option, $9.1 million in 2020.
The standoff between the Cowboys and a star running back has prompted memories of 1993, when Emmitt Smith took hardball negotiating tactics into the regular season. After Dallas, which won the Super Bowl the season before, got off to an 0-2 start without him, team owner Jerry Jones showed Smith the money and got the ’Boys back on track for a second straight title.
As Elliott was packing his bags Monday, Jones was busy making the case that when it comes to comparisons with 1993, that was then and this is now.
The 76-year-old, who has owned the Cowboys since 1989, noted in an interview with Dallas’s KTVT that Smith became the first player to win an NFL rushing title in the same season that his team won the Super Bowl. Smith accomplished the feat in 1992, 1993 and 1995, and the only running back to match it has been Terrell Davis of the 1998 Denver Broncos.
“The point there is, you don’t have to have a rushing champion to win a Super Bowl,” Jones said.
“That’s one of the dilemmas at running back,” he added, “is that the league knows that you can win Super Bowls and not have the Emmitt Smith back there, or not have Zeke back there.”
Elliott has been absent since Dallas opened training camp Friday in Oxnard, Calif. To address its depth at running back, the team brought back Alfred Morris, who backed up Elliott in 2016 and 2017 before playing for the 49ers last season.
In five starts with the Cowboys during a suspension of Elliott, Morris gained 430 yards and a touchdown on 99 carries.
While Elliott has two years left on his contract, two other key offensive cogs for Dallas, quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, are in the final year of their respective deals. Both players are in training camp and professing confidence that they’ll eventually get what they deserve, but Jones could be wondering if he can, or should, break the bank for them and Elliott, as well.
“When we are looking and putting Zeke’s contract into place, we’ve got to realize that the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl,” he told KTVT. “And so you’ve got to do all of the things, along with having Zeke, that allow you to have other players, so that you can win the Super Bowl.”
Jones’s comments suggest he has noticed that none of the Super Bowl winners since 2014 — the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles — had a running back selected for the Pro Bowl in any of their championship seasons.
The NFL overall has de-emphasized the ground game in favor of more passing in recent years. However, teams are also throwing the ball to running backs more frequently, and Elliott proved his worth in that regard last season with 77 receptions, after catching just 58 passes in his first two seasons combined.
Elliott also proved in 2017 that when he goes to Cabo San Lucas, where his agent owns a residence, it’s not just for fun in the sun. He began that season taking criticism for not appearing to be in top condition, but he returned from Mexico in December looking leaner and more buff.
By NFL rule, Elliott must report to the team no later than Aug. 6 to ensure he accrues another year toward free agency eligibility.
In the meantime, Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett is confident Elliott “is going to get himself ready to go.”
“If he feels like that is going to help him be ready to go, he should go do that,” Garrett said Monday (via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram). “I know he spent some time down there during that suspension and came back. He was ready to play.”
“We would like him to be here practicing today. The nature of the game is that is not happening right now,” Garrett added. “Zeke loves football. … He knows the responsibility he has to his team and his teammates. He takes that seriously.”
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