The life of the NFL running back is extremely volatile. One day, you’re on top of the world and the next, you’re out of the league. While that is slightly hyperbolic, there is a lot of truth in that statement. One former Dallas Cowboys running back comes to mind immediately.
In the 2013 and 2014 seasons, DeMarco Murray was living the high life as the starting running back for the Dallas Cowboys. In two seasons, Murray compiled almost 3,000 yards on the ground, adding another 776 in the passing game while scoring 23 times.
At the age of 27, Murray hit the open market. By age 29 he was out of the league. Murray was not plagued by injuries. He wasn’t old, either by football standards and certainly not by life measures. Murray just “lost it.”
You can likely thank his exit from the Dallas Cowboys as the main reason Murray’s fast track out of football was so expeditious. Dallas had no problem using Murray in those two seasons, handing him the rock 609 times while completing 110 passes in his direction.
With over 700 touches in just two seasons, his usage rate never came close in any of his final three years. Simply put, the Dallas Cowboys took most of the tread off of Murray’s tires.
Of course, Murray would be replaced by 2016 with a newer, better, younger version of himself. By drafting Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in that year’s draft, it was obvious that Elliott would be a focal point of their offense.
In three of his four seasons, Elliott eclipsed 300 carries with almost 200 receptions. While Elliott definitely earned his six-year, $90M contract after such usage, especially considering his near 50 touchdowns and two rushing titles, there is a question that one must ponder …
After a down year from the high-priced running back, should the Dallas Cowboys be worried about Ezekiel Elliott?
Last season, Elliott had what was easily his worst year. In 2020, Zeke had the least amount of yards he’s ever accumulated in one year. He tied his career-low in touchdowns. Elliott’s receiving yards were among the lowest of his career. His yards per rush trended down for the third straight year and were also his career-worst.
This direction is never what you want to see from a star player. That’s especially so when year one of that $90M extension starts in 2021. If Elliott is on the roster on March 22, his $9.6M salary fully guarantees. If the Dallas Cowboys chose to release him (spoiler alert, they won’t) $24.5M would sit on their salary cap as dead money.
Of course, the Cowboys could try and trade Elliott. For the record, I don’t see that happening either. In fact, I am not completely convinced that there is much need for worry when comes to Zeke at all. There are several factors that went into Elliott’s down year.
For one, a new coaching staff, much more fond of passing took over for a former regime who loved to run the ball. In 2020, the Dallas Cowboys threw the ball 639 times while only running 430. Elliott had just two carries more than he did in 2017 when he was suspended for six games.
Another factor in Elliott’s “off” year was the fact that Dallas routinely played from behind. In some weeks, they were behind by more than three scores. It’s hard to get back in the game five yards at a time when you need points in a hurry.
Yet another focal point to the drop-off for 21 was that his main man was lost for a large part of the season. It is a lot easier to game plan for Elliott when Dak Prescott is not the quarterback of this team. Are you really concerned by the presence of Ben DiNucci or Garrett Gilbert if you’re an opposing defensive coordinator? I didn’t think so either.
Lastly, the offensive line was a mess in 2020. The Cowboys’ three best offensive linemen all missed time. Two of them missed essentially the entire season. No starting quarterback and three-fifths of your starting offensive line gone would make any running back’s life extremely difficult.
Ezekiel Elliott will still only be 26 when the 2021 season kicks off. The offense will be fortified. The coaching staff will have a year of familiarity with their toys.
There is no doubt that 2020 was not his best season. There is also a lot of reason for cautious optimism for 2021 to be a bounce-back season. There are definitely aspects of the Dallas Cowboys that need attention in order for next year to be better. The running back position should not be one.