Everybody associated with the Dallas Cowboys tried to say Ezekiel Elliott was the same guy last summer that he was as a rookie.
Everything else said otherwise.
He did not carry himself in the same jovial way he did as a rookie, when he would playfully mess with teammates, staffers and fans. He was more reserved, almost sullen. He did not speak to the media much at all.
He heavily carried the burden of a potential suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. When the suspension became reality, a long legal battle with the NFL ensued, but he eventually gave up when he opted to miss six games. In the Amazon series "All or Nothing," the behind-the-scenes footage showed how much the suspension wore on Elliott.
"I think it was difficult, and I think he went through some really difficult times," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I think he stood for what he believed in last year, and certainly you're naïve to think there wasn't distractions in his mind from what he was going through, week to week."
As the Cowboys open training camp Thursday with their first practice in Oxnard, California, Elliott's suspension is behind him. At least publicly, his offseason was quiet. Elliott's most visible appearance was on a fishing trip to Key West with several offensive linemen and quarterback Dak Prescott. The only slightly negative news was when he made fans wait longer than expected before signing autographs at a public appearance.
"I thought he had a really good offseason, really consistent in his approach," said coach Jason Garrett, speaking about Elliott's on-field work in the organized team activities and minicamp. "I thought he got better and better physically as he was in the offseason program on a consistent basis. Serious-minded focus, really grasped the leadership mantle in that running back room. I thought he practiced really well, set the example for the rest of the group. He didn't say a whole lot -- it wasn't like all of a sudden, 'I'm Joe leader.' It wasn't that at all. It was doing things the right way. Everybody sees it. He set a great example for the standards that we want to set for our team, serious-minded, came in, looks in good shape, did well on the conditioning run [Wednesday]. I'm excited where he is."
Since high school, Elliott's every move has been watched. In 2016, the focus was on the field when he led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards and was a vital piece to the Cowboys' success. Heading into the 2017 season, the focus was not on his chances of repeating that success in his second season, but on allegations of domestic violence in Columbus, Ohio, that, even though authorities opted not to pursue charges, resulted in his NFL suspension. He also made headlines for pulling down a woman's top at a St. Patrick's Day parade and for an alleged incident at a nightclub that left a man with a broken nose. Police suspended their investigation into the latter, citing uncooperative witnesses and "lack of a complaint."
Stephen Jones has seen a growth in Elliott, who turned just 23 on Sunday.
"Jerry [Jones] and I have talked about this. Most of the issues that happen with NFL players are when they're young, their first one, two, three years in the league. I think that's just maturity," Jones said. "These guys are sometimes 19, 20, 21 years old. They're maturing each and every year. And I think as each year passes, they'll certainly understand what works, what doesn't work. He knows that he's under the limelight now and under a magnifying glass. I think he gets that."
Before Elliott accepted the league's six-game suspension, he ran for at least 80 yards in seven of his first eight games. When he returned, he ran for 97 and 103 yards despite the layoff.
He finished just 17 yards short of 1,000 on the season.
His importance to the Cowboys cannot be understated. He makes Prescott better because defenses have to focus on the running game. He makes the receivers and tight ends better because defenses have to send more attention his way. He makes the defense better because it is not on the field as much when the Cowboys control the tempo of the game. A content and productive Elliott makes for a content and productive team.
"I do think Zeke wants to be great, not just for a year, not in the short term. I think he wants to be one of the great ones to play the game," Jones said. " I think he's a hardworking guy who knows what it takes, and I think it's a process. I think he continues to mature. As Jason said, he's taking a leadership role now. I expect him to really step up, I think, and have a really great year this year."
The suspension cost Elliott in public perception and millions in salary and legal fees. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Rams signed Todd Gurley to a $60 million contract extension that included $45 million guaranteed.
The Cowboys can't sign Elliott to an extension until after the 2018 season, but they have him under contractual control until 2020. Jones is already thinking of a prosperous future for Elliott and the Cowboys.
"It certainly will affect Zeke. I'm sure Zeke smiled big when he saw it [Gurley's deal]," Jones said. "But I wouldn't take anybody for Zeke. I just think we've got the best one in the league, and I think he's put his off-the-field issues behind him and I expect him to do very special things. Just as I said with Dak, I hope we're looking at big numbers on both of them, because that'll mean they've had great years and I would submit to you that if both of them go out and have great years, the Dallas Cowboys are going to have a great year, too."