For all the unknowns surround the Dallas Cowboys heading into 2018, any hope of a possible playoff run is based on Ezekiel Elliott becoming the most dominating running back in the NFL again.
He is the key to everything they do and it goes without saying that the biggest difference between a 13-3 record in 2016 and last year’s 9-7 campaign was Elliott’s decline in numbers from his NFL-leading 1,631 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns as rookie to gaining 983 and seven, while missing six games due to an NFL suspension.
It affected quarterback Dak Prescott’s confidence, efficiency, and performance. It impacted the defense which found itself on the field more because the Cowboys were no longer dominating the ball and time of possession.
The Cowboys did their part to help by drafting of guard Connor Williams out of Texas in second-round to address a hole up front, potentially make the offensive line the envy of the league again.
But the biggest change in the process came from Elliott himself, who no longer has the weight of an NFL investigation and subsequent suspension hanging over his head.
It resulted in a quiet offseason and has him heading to camp lighter mentally and physically than he was a year ago.
“You go at this time last year, he’s very stressed out,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “Wasn’t himself. Looked big. Now he looks happy and jubilant and lean and just going out there and having some fun. So it’s a completely different Zeke than it was last year.”
Elliott is still listed at 6-foot, 228 pounds in the Cowboys media guide. But everyone saw the pudge on his waistline in training camp last year. It just wasn’t talked about.
Considering what was on the line, his coming to camp in less than the best shape was understandable. It was hard to concentrate working out when your livelihood and reputation were in someone else’s hands.
The Cowboys went with the company line last season that Elliott wasn’t bothered by the distractions and that he was channeled and focused.
They are now acknowledging a difference in him and his approach.
“He has a clear focus and clear vision on what he wants to do and what he wants to be,” Brown said. “When you look at him physically and see where he has leaned up then you see the way he runs out here. You can tell he is in a different place right now.
“He is in much better shape mentally too. He doesn’t have all that stuff on his mind. He has a clear vision on what he wants to do and what he wants to be. He has a clear mind. He wants to be the best.
We are going to get a good Zeke this year. He is on a mission. You can see it already.”
Elliott doesn’t elaborate much on the details last season’s travails, which included the investigation, the official suspension in training camp and then a battle in federal court through the first eight games of the season before he ended up serving his penance.
After starting the season 5-3, the Cowboys were 3-3 in his absence and never quite regained their footing when he returned for the final two games season.
He apologized to owner Jerry Jones and promised that he was going to be the back this team needed going forward.
Elliott carried that focus into the offseason which was quiet, deliberate boring by his standards.
It was the opposite of salacious.
There were no St. Patrick’s Day incidents or nightclub fights to draw the attention of TMZ cameras.
Elliott said he has learned from his past experiences.
“I am being more cautious, more focused on my game,” said Elliott, in one of his few introspective moments. “And focused on having a good year. I am just ready to go out there and prove myself and be the running back I am for this team.”
His effort to tone things down was not lost on the Cowboys who hoped, prayed and quietly begged for a quiet, drama-free offseason from Elliott.
“It’s important for him, it’s important for his teammates, it’s important for our franchise and what people’s thoughts are on him,” executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. “I think it was huge that he was able to really get his hands around what this is all about -- the challenges that are out there. Hopefully, it’ll continue.”
It certainly has continued so far in training camp where Elliott has not only looked quicker and learner but has lived up to his promise of being a better leader as well. He was strong in his defense of the team’s decision to stand unified for the national anthem.
He even asked Brown to repeat a drill Saturday in practice.
Owner Jerry Jones has certainly taken notice.
“I just think he looks veteran-ish,” Jones said Sunday. “I think he looks confident. I think he’s getting good hard work in. Fundamental work. He just looks sound to me. I’m glad to see him get that solid work in.”
Jones believes a mentally free and more physically fit Elliott is the formula for what could be a record-breaking season for the running back.
Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season rushing record 2,106 yards is not out of question for Elliott who will be asked to carry an even bigger load in 2018 than he did as a rookie. Not only will he likely lead the league in carries in the Cowboys’ run-based offense but he will probably be among the team leaders in pass reception as well in the team’s attempts to get him the ball as much as possible.
“I’m ready for whatever they throw at me,” Elliott said. “Whatever they ask me to do I’m going to go out there and do it. That’s it. All I want to do is go out there and win, so if they need me to do more, I’ll do more. If they need me to do less, I’ll do less. It’s whatever this team needs. Whatever is best for the team.”
It’s that attitude that has Brown confident that the off-the-field issues that this leaner and mentally-free Elliot has put his off the field issues in the past and is singularly focused on greatness ahead. He saw that transformation in the offseason and has no reason to look back now.
“Once he got back where was with me and I knew where he was mentally,” Brown said. “I knew where he wants to be. I knew there would be no problems. He wants to be the best. I’m going to try to help him get there.”