"Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push." - The Joker
If the Dallas Cowboys are going to bounce back from madness in 2018, they'll most definitely need Ezekiel Elliott on the field for the entire ride.
The absence of the pro bowler was felt in a big way this past season, when he finally conceded to an unjustified six-game suspension levied by the NFL for domestic violence allegations made by his disgruntled former girlfriend. Elliott fought tooth-and-nail to exonerate his name in the eyes of the league and public eye, something the Columbus (OH) criminal court had long done by opting to dismiss the case in its entirety.
Elliott returned from his rigorous training in Cabo, MX with a renewed sense of what comes with his celebrity status, and made it deathly clear he wanted to focus on making the future better than the past. Although not exactly what the media had in mind when they pressed him for his six-week regimen in the first locker room interview after he rejoined the team, it was music to the ears of a Cowboys' organization that will rise and fall on the shoulder pads of the former rushing champ.
"Two things: No. 1, we all know that on a personal basis that issue was a hard issue for Zeke," said Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones from Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, AL, via The Dallas Morning News. "Logic tells me that what he had to deal with that is a big deterrent in looking at anything like that in the future. That's about the best way I know, that when those kinds of negative things happen to you there is usually follow, usually create deterrence for doing it again when you've had that kind of experience that he had this past year.
"That was a lot of punishment for him under the circumstances for what he didn't do."
Admittedly, although the mountain of evidence supports no wrongdoing in the domestic violence case, Elliott hasn't exactly been an angel in some other instances. The most notable being the ill-fated decision to pull down a young woman's top during the 2016 St. Patrick's Day parade in Dallas. It ultimately came to light the woman and Elliott were friends and it's been reported she egged him on to do it followed by the two partying in Miami not long after. And while it's ultimately an error many youth can and will get away with, those individuals aren't the face of the most valuable sports team on the planet.
With great power comes great responsibility.
To that point, Elliott appears wiser heading into 2018 and Jones is fine taking that at face value, with a clear and obvious reality the two have likely had several in-depth sit-downs about what it expected going forward. That needn't be seen as an added demerit to Elliott though, as Jones makes clear everyone under contract is bound to the same protocol and he went one step further in proclaiming there will be no "Dez Rules" initiated on the star running back.
"I wouldn't get into anything like that because it doesn't apply," Jones said. "The main thing is I wouldn't want to imply there was anything done other than ...there are a plenty of team rules, personal conduct rules, there are plenty of things in place and plenty of consequences in place as we've seen that should prevent that."
For his part, VP of Player Personnel Stephen Jones is focused on improvement not only off-the-field, but on it as well. Although Elliott is arguably the best RB in the NFL, no one's perfect and Jones isn't afraid to step out there and confess it. He wants to see the entire organization take a step forward in 2018, including the unbelievably talented Elliott.
"I think there is a lot to improve upon," said S. Jones, via The Dallas Morning News. "There are so many great things about Zeke but yet there are so many things that if he'll improve and do better, which I think he's the first to say it, then believe it or not he can be an even better football player and a better representative of our organization. He's obviously got the chance to be special and if he improves, and as I said, we all have to improve. We all have to look in the mirror if we're not getting it done.
"And right now, we're not playing football so obviously we need to get better."
Speaking of football, which is why we're all really here, Elliott missing six games obviously had an impact on his numbers because you can't run a football if you're not allowed on the field. That obvious tidbit notwithstanding, the All-Pro still delivered a very strong season when given the chance. He fell just short of 1,000 yards -- rushing for 983 in only 10 games (98.3 average per game) -- in a season that put five games over 100 yards on display, including a 147-yard and 150-yard effort. And despite the aforementioned missed time, Elliott was still only 155 yards away from being top four in the league in rushing and two TDs shy of being top three. Given the pace he set when playing, he would've delivered 1,572 yards on the ground with 12 TDs. That's good enough to retain his NFL rushing title from 2016, falling just 59 yards and three TDs shy of his stellar rookie season.
And with a shifty offensive line, no less, but we'll address than in a moment.
Patience, young padawan.
Elliott's sole poor outing came in Week 2 by way of the Denver Broncos, who held him to a career-low eight yards at Mile-High.
It was discovered in film analysis that the Cowboys did nothing over the course of 60 minutes of football to block the additional player the Broncos had placed in the box, which explains why Elliott could never get going that day. He'd then go on a tear, rushing for 671 yards and seven touchdowns over the next six games being forced to sit by the NFL, including tossing in 156 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns over the same span of time. Which brings us to the next point, which is an utterly confusing one:
The Cowboys unwillingness to commit to Elliott as a receiving threat.
The former Buckeye proved time and again throughout his collegiate career at Ohio State he can be dynamic catching the ball out of the backfield. The Cowboys toyed around with the concept never truly kicked open the flood gates. Utilizing Elliott more in this capacity elevates his overall game to match that of Le'Veon Bell, one of the league's best running backs who still finds himself catching passes out of both the backfield and from the slot position. The Cowboys have threatened to do the latter in games, motioning Elliott out of the backfield to the slot position before ultimately deciding to not throw him the ball.
Even extrapolating for Elliott's six-game absence, the formula used on Bell is still one that's clearly foreign to the front office in Dallas. The latter was targeted as a receiver 94 times in 2016 and produced 616 yards and two TDs as a result of it. His receiving workload was upped this past season to 106 targets and he rewarded head coach Mike Tomlin with 655 yards and another two TDs.
For statistical contrast, Elliott has been targeted a total of 77 times in his 26 regular season games. That's an average of three targets per outing, which buoys the number to 93 had he been present all 32 games in his first two seasons. That's still one target fewer for his young career than Bell had in 2016 alone, which is a glaring statistic that proves the Cowboys are holstering a receiving weapon who could help an offense that struggled mightily (and often) in 2017. Given they're now entering a pressure-packed season that holds the future of many in its hands, including head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Dak Prescott, it would behoove the former to advise offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to direct the latter towards seeking out Elliott on dropbacks.
Just a thought.
This could set Elliott up to have a year that eclipses his historic rookie debut and, by default, helps Prescott regain his own swagger. That confidence will then lend itself to an improved year for Dez Bryant, assuming fewer drops and a repaired scheme that designs him open, so forth and so on. It's all a ripple effect that begins and more often ends with the correct utilization of Elliott, his value to the team being on full display in his absence. There can be no dispute going forward he's the Cowboys' most valuable player, even landing in the top 10 of ranked RBs on the Bleacher Report NFL1000 list, despite missing 37.5% of the season.
9. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Inside Running: 20/25
Outside Running: 19/25
Position Value: 7/10
Overall Grade: 77/100
It's safe to say Ezekiel Elliott's second season didn't match the high standards he set for himself during his rookie campaign. His ongoing legal battle after the NFL suspended him for six games following its investigation of domestic violence allegations clearly had an impact on him and the Cowboys. It wasn't until Week 7 that we saw the dynamic rusher he's clearly capable of being, but his suspension was upheld after numerous delays a few weeks later. His season will likely be remembered for the suspension, which is exactly how it should be if the allegations against him are true.
—NFL1000 running backs scout Mark Bullock
Elliott proved his value with his presence and in his absence in 2017. When he was on the field, Dak Prescott had the play-action passing game rolling, and the Dallas offense worked as planned for the most part despite unexpected regression by the offensive line. However, the fact that Elliot dropped a full yard per carry in his second season—from 5.1 to 4.1—is cause for concern. When Elliott has the room to speed through inside gaps or run outside zone, he's one of the best in the business. But he's not a natural creator who can get by the defense if it gets in the backfield before he can make the moves he needs to make for big plays.
—NFL1000 lead scout Doug Farrar
While it's fair to note the one yard fewer per carry, a little perspective is required here. That was much more accountable to the failed experiment of starting Chaz Green, a backup swing tackle, at the left guard position. That move set back the chemistry of the once stout offensive line and it wasn't until the team finally made the move to place former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper at LG1 did things begin to fall into place and Elliott's production ramped up immediately because of it. Although he still remains the best RB in the league after contact, the difference between 2017 and 2016 was the lanes that were or were not being created.
I told you we'd revisit this, and I'm a man of my word.
In his rookie season, they were there and they were plentiful. That was not consistently the case in his second year, which is something the Cowboys will look to repair for 2018 in securing a long-term solution at left guard. Cooper is a free agent and they'd be wise to bring him back, but the real money will be on selecting a dynamic cornerstone player in the NFL Draft. They've already met with Will Hernandez of UTEP, who was also seen out recently taking in a flick with La'El Collins and Tyron Smith, and he'll be just the beginning of their interests as the Draft approaches, especially with Notre Dame star Quenton Nelson and UGA's Isaiah Wynn in the mix.
The Cowboys' last three first-round grabs at the OL position have worked out in legendary fashion, and the current prospect pool could certainly land them another jackpot selection. This, along with extending the incumbent Zack Martin, will go a long way to making sure the arguably best RB in the NFL is again running behind the best offensive line in football -- something they were far from in 2017.
That sound you hear is Elliott's smile slowly stretching from ear-to-ear. And if the Cowboys follow the blueprint laid out above in an effort to keep opposing teams guessing and keep the best player on their roster using every skill available in his set, that smile will rapidly turn into one that would make Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger proud as Elliott builds a 2018 resume worthy of league MVP honors.
Why so serious, Cowboys? Let's have some fun.
Patrik Walker @VoiceOfTheStar