When the Dallas Cowboys played the Washington Redskins on Sept. 18 in Week 2, it was the beginning of the now-franchise record, nine-game winning streak.
Fueling their rise to the top of the NFL with a 9-1 mark has been the emergence of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
However, the win that started the streak, spearheading Elliott’s climb to the top the league’s rushing charts with 1,102 yards, featured the fourth overall pick on the bench at game’s end.
Two fumbles in the game, including one in the fourth quarter that almost cost the Cowboys, was the factor.
But tackle Doug Free pounced on the ball, allowing what was the game-winning drive to continue. It was a drive that commenced with Elliott on the bench, replaced by veteran Alfred Morris.
It’s something Elliott hasn't forgotten.
And if he did, he got a good reminder and wake-up call while watching the Redskins defeat the Green Bay Packers Sunday night when cornerback Josh Norman secured the win with a forced fumble.
“I remember we were playing pretty well,” Elliott said. “I remember I had some ball security issues – that’s my biggest memory. That’s obviously my focus every week, but definitely even more focused coming into this week – even seeing 24 (Norman) go out there and get a strip late in the game on Sunday night. It’s something we’ve got to focus on, something you’re aware of.”
Elliott didn’t get down after the game because the Cowboys got the win.
But he has made sure it didn’t happen again, while putting himself in the thick if the most valuable player conversation.
Elliott rushed for 140, 138, 134 and 157 yards in wins the next four weeks against Chicago, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Green Bay.
He became the first rookie in the NFL to rush for 130 or more yards in four consecutive games while becoming the identity of the ground-oriented, ball-control style that has made the Cowboys the NFL’s best team through 10 games.
After gaining 51 and 83 yards in the first two games against the New York Giants and Redskins, Elliott hasn’t had less than 92 yards in any game since and that came because he sat for most of the fourth quarter of a 35-10 blowout against the Cleveland Browns.
The Cowboys never worried much about Elliott’s fumbles because he didn’t have a history of that in college. He fumbled just four times in three years during a record-setting career at Ohio State.
They also knew about his drive, competitiveness and passion for the game through his college years, meaning that he was only going to get better as year went on.
“Man, the guy is an animal,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “He only gets better. He’s totally different player from Week 2 and that’s all credit to him by the way he approaches practice, the way he go out there and just beast it and have fun throughout practice. That just puts a lot of spirit in him and including the rest of the team, including the coaches and all, and we just go out there and enjoy it.”
Elliott is the NFL’s leader in carries (233), rushing yards (1,102), yards per game (110.2), and is tied for third in rushing touchdowns (nine).
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is the one who benched Elliott at the end of the Washington game.
It’s wasn’t a punitive thing as much as reality of the current situation they were in. He says Elliott carries the ball the right way. It’s was just a matter of recommitting to the priority of taking care of the football.
Elliott has done that with renewed mental focus.
“It’s my job to take care of the ball,” Elliott said.
Giving him the ball and putting him in charge of the offense has been focus since draft day.
He got off to slow start to the season, including the yardage totals and fumbles in the first two games, primarily because of missed time in training camp due to a hamstring injury.
But as Elliott has gotten more comfortable and more adjusted to the NFL game, he has proven to be everything the Cowboys envisioned.
He has already surpassed Tony Dorsett’s rookie rushing record of 1,007 yards.
Elliott is just the third rookie in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards in nine games, joining Eric Dickerson (1,096 in 1983) and Adrian Peterson (1,081 yards in 2007).
And his 110.2 per game average has him just off the pace from matching Dickerson's rookie record of 1,808 yards for the season.
Garrett said it’s Elliott’s complete back.
“He’s a really good football player,” Garrett said. “It’s really as simple as that. That’s what we saw on tape. I think everybody saw that in college – a very complete player. Obviously, a big-time runner, but so much more than that. A really good receiver, a really good blocker. His coach in college (Ohio State’s Urban Meyer) said he was the best player he has ever had with the ball not in his hands. We saw that on tape and we see that here.”