The need is for Ezekiel Elliott to be a decent facsimile of DeMarco Murray, but God help us all if Zeke is the second coming of Trent Richardson.
The last time an NFL team invested a draft pick as high as the Cowboys did on Zeke, the Cleveland Browns selected Richardson at No. 3 in 2012.
Richardson has been a bust. He was cut by the Ravens on Tuesday, and with a 3.3-yards-per-carry average it looks as though his career is over.
If it makes you feel any better, two Cowboys scouts insisted to me shortly after that 2012 draft that Richardson was worthy of that pick.
I asked former Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt, who has forgotten more about football than most of us will ever know, the last time the Cowboys had a rookie they needed to be good the way this team does Zeke.
Brandt is a man who has been around the Cowboys since their inception, and has a elephant’s memory. Remember, Brandt’s mental list includes Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and the rest of the Ring of Honor guys.
He took a long pause before coming up with the answer.
“Tony Dorsett,” he said.
That’s easy enough. TD was the No. 2 overall pick in 1977, and the Cowboys won the Super Bowl in his rookie year when he ran for more than 1,000 yards.
In 39 games at Ohio State, Ezekiel Elliott ran for 3,961 yards and 43 touchdowns. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry.
The Cowboys will not win without an intact Tony Romo, and the best chance of the quarterback avoiding major injury is if Ezekiel Elliott is as good as the Cowboys need him to be.
It is an absurd amount of pressure and expectation to burden a man who has never played a snap in the NFL, but that is how the Cowboys are designed.
With all due respect to veteran runners Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, if Zeke is Trent Richardson rather than DeMarco or TD, forget it. Zeke doesn’t have to be DeMarco Murray or Tony Dorsett, but he must be special immediately.
Running back is the one NFL position where a rookie can make the biggest impact; last season, the Rams’ Todd Gurley was the highest drafted running back — 10th — and ran for 1,106 yards in 13 games on a bad team.
Morris and McFadden might be good, but they do not have the legs of a 21-year-old like Zeke.
“Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. He’s a hell of a football player,” Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown said. “What we [have] to understand is we can’t try to meet outside expectations.”
And that sounds great, but the in-house expectations are as grand as those from the outside the Cowboys Castle. We’re talking about Jerry Jones, a man who does not know how to spell “modest expectations” even if you spotted him the correct spelling.
“The best thing to learn is just getting out there, getting reps and making mistakes,” Elliott said earlier in the week during his only media session in Oxnard thus far. “Once you make a mistake, it’s kind of imprinted in your head what you need to do and what’s exactly going on. Once you make that first mistake, it kind of clears up everything and everything becomes easier.”
In his first season with the Cowboys last season, Darren McFadden ran for 1,089 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
There is no reason why Zeke should not rank among the NFL leaders in rushing this season.
After all, McFadden ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing last season despite making only 10 starts on a terrible team against defenses that stacked the line knowing his quarterback could not complete any passes.
When the Cowboys were special under coach Jason Garrett in 2014, they had the second-best running game in the NFL behind what now should be unequivocally the best offensive line in the NFL. This line is entering its prime and should be in the business of creating three-lane highways for its running backs.
He still has to hit the holes, outrun defenders, juke linebackers and safeties, score touchdowns, convert third-and-1s, catch passes, and pick up all blocking schemes.
This what DeMarco Murray did in 2014 when he set the franchise record for rushing yards, and led the NFL in all-purpose yards. He was on the field for nearly every offensive play, and trustworthy when it came to blocking for Romo and catching dump passes when nothing else was available.
DeMarco Murray ran for a team-record 1,845 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2014 and led the NFL in total yards.
“We are going to trust [Elliott] wholeheartedly,” Brown said. “He’s working on that trust, and building it. I anticipate he will be able to handle all of it.”
With 39 games of big-game college experience at Ohio State, Elliott has all of the college measurables.
There is nothing that says we should doubt him, or that he cannot meet the absurd high expectations that come from outside, and inside, the Cowboys.
He just needs to do it, and prove that he can come closer to DeMarco Murray or Tony Dorsett rather than Trent Richardson.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.