Seven days after he fumbled twice, his word was gospel Sunday night.
Call it Ezekiel, Chapter One.
When he dropped the football twice in Washington a week ago, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott appeared to wear the memory like a scarlet letter.
“I’ve got to do better,” the rookie quietly told the gathered reporters. “I can’t be putting the ball on the ground. That’s my job.”
For a just-turned-21-year-old who cockily walked the NFL Draft red carpet last April in half-a-shirt, it was a humble and disarming admission.
“I’ve got to do better,” he repeated. “Better for myself, better for this team.”
And so he did Sunday night. With a national TV audience watching, Elliott burst for 21 yards on the first snap of the game, finished with 140 yards, and the Cowboys defeated the Chicago Bears 31-17.
“That’s one of the reasons we drafted him,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “The mental toughness he has, the physical toughness he has. He’s gotten better and better every week.”
Much will be written, justifiably, about the Cowboys defensive lapses that allowed journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer — eight NFL seasons, five teams — to climb back into the game.
Filling in for injured starter Jay Cutler, Hoyer came within 13 yards of the best game of his NFL career, hitting 30 of 49 passes for 317 yards.
The Cowboys neglected to sack Hoyer, a largely stationary target, all night.
How does this happen?
And though Garrett said, as coaches do, that he expected the Bears to bear down and come back, the alarm is that his team appeared to be on the path to a rout when receiver Terrance Williams suddenly dropped the ball.
The fumble came on the home team’s second snap of the second half, when its lead was a comfortable 24-3. Quarterback Dak Prescott hit Williams at the 50-yard line and had reached the Bears’ 25 when cornerback Jacoby Glenn knocked the ball loose.
The recovery appeared to waken the sleeping Bears. From that play until the end of the game, Hoyer was 21 for 35 for 238 yards.
Spotty defense? Inconsistent pass rush? Better buckle up and get used to it.
Until defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli performs the assigned miracle and changes his unit’s Gatorade into wine, the Cowboys are going to continue to live by their offense.
Which is where Elliott came in Sunday night. Time and again, he made the tough carries, found the right holes – and on one play, he leaped the right tackler.
“He made a lof good runs tonight, a lot of tough runs, a lot of NFL runs,” Garrett said.
When the running game rushes 41 times for nearly five yards per carry, it’s bound to boost Prescott and the passing offense.
The final victory margin ended up being 14 points. But the Cowboys’ first eight possessions of the game ended, in order, with a touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, Williams’ fumble, a punt, a rare Dan Bailey field goal miss and a clinching touchdown.
That adds up to 447 yards, and the Cowboys no doubt will take that and run on most Sundays this season.
“Obviously, Ezekiel is getting in the saddle, so to speak,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. “And Dak just continues to give defenses some challenges.”
Prescott made the most of his own sack-less day. His poise and accuracy have grown each week.
But make no mistake. It helps when the rookie running back runs for 140 yards and makes amends for his game in Washington.
“We’ve all fumbled at different times,” veteran Jason Witten said. “He accepted it, and I think he got better from it and played really well tonight. We knew we were going to try and run the football.”
Call it Ezekiel, Chapter One.
Until the defense shows it can consistently stop someone, the Cowboys are going to need it.