Dallas Cowboys

Jones has right to joke with Zeke. He doesn’t have right to send mixed message to fans

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout is nearing the 30-day mark.

He has missed two preseason games and remains in Cabo San Lucas where he is expected to workout with Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk in the coming days.

The Cowboys will take on the Houston Texans Saturday in their third preseason game, which is considered the dress rehearsal for the season.

What follows is the ever more meaningless preseason final against the Tampa Buccaneers next Thursday when the starters will sit and stay out of harm’s way before the Sept. 8 season opener against the New York Giants in Arlington.

Time is drawing near for Elliott and the Cowboys to do a deal to avoid him missing real games and risking the team’s hopes for a successful season.

The only thing we know for sure is that owner Jerry Jones has a right to joke with Elliott. In fact, he paid $2 million in fines to the NFL for that right.

But what the Cowboys don’t have the right to do is send Elliott and its fans mixed messages on the negotiations.

It’s no secret that Elliott wants to be the highest paid running back in the NFL. As a two-time rushing champ and the foundation of everything the Cowboys do on offense, it’s an understandable request.

Vice president Stephen Jones has even called him the straw that stirs the drink.

Making Elliott the highest paid running back in football means topping the four-year, $57,500,000 contract that Todd Gurley got from the Los Angeles Rams last year. It included a $21,000,000 signing bonus, $45,000,000 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $14,375,000.

Stephen Jones even mentioned Gurley’s deal as the baseline of the negotiations with Elliott when asked about an extension at the NFL combine in February.

But now the Cowboys are only offering Elliott a contract that makes him the second highest-paid running back in the NFL. Jones is using the four-year, $52,500,000 contract Le’Veon Bell signed with the New York Jets in March as a guide. It included a $8,000,000 signing bonus, $27,000,000 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $13,125,000.

Jones explanation for the change in offers was that Bell’s deal lowered the market. The offer is less than Gurley but more than Bell.

While Bell’s deal is just $1.2 million less in salary, the signing bonus and guaranteed money are significantly less.

For Elliott, who not only wanted to be the highest paid running back in football but reset what is a deflated market for running backs, coming in No. 2 behind Gurley with a Bell-type deal is a nonstarter.

What’s even more confusing is the notion that the Cowboys are letting the market be their guide for the low-ball offer when owner Jerry Jones has been screaming since the start of the training camp that the Cowboys don’t consider the market when negotiating contracts with their players.

“As a team you can’t be operating at the market place’s idea about what you need to pay,” Jerry Jones said. “It doesn’t work. It screws it up. We are not going to make those kinds of decisions.”

In Jones’ mind, what other players are getting has no bearing on the Cowboys’ offers and they are solely based on the team’s salary structure.

Well, who is zooming whom?

Stephen Jones said Bell’s deal changed the market and thus caused the Cowboys to lower their offer.

Jerry Jones said the market makes no difference.

It appears Stephen Jones is telling the most truth here.

He has said his offer to Elliott was at the top 2 at his position and their offers to quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper were in the top five at their respective positions.

And this is after making defensive DeMarcus Lawrence the richest player in team history with a five-year, $105 million contract extension in March. He is the highest-paid defensive end in the NFL and third as an edge rusher.

But it’s Jerry Jones who has the final say.

“I have got the backbone to keep it that way,” Jones said.

Of course, it was also Jones who said last Saturday that Prescott was worthy of getting paid among the top-tier quarterbacks in the league and the Cowboys have to find a way to make it fit.

“A lot of people question whether Dak is one of the guys who need to be in the top tier,” Jones said. “I have never questioned that. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is at the top level of paid quarterbacks. There is no question in my mind about that. Now how we make this all fit to have the best team around him, that is what we are trying to work on.”

That sounds like market comparison, which it is.

At the end of the day, it’s nothing but a bunch of talk and negotiating tactics as well as mixed messages to Elliott and a fan base that is starting to choose sides.

If truth be told, the Elliott deal should be the easiest to do. Unlike Prescott and Cooper, there is no question about where he stands on the hierarchy of NFL running backs in terms of production and importance to the team.

And considering the depressed running back market, it’s the cheapest one to do. Prescott wants at least $32 million annually and Cooper is going to get at least $17 million annually.

Just like Jones has a right to joke with Elliott, Elliott has a right to be paid at the top of the market without all the funny business.

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Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.