FRISCO, Texas — The runner matters.
Coach Jason Garrett made that point after the 2014 season when the Dallas Cowboys were trying to figure out what they should do with DeMarco Murray, who was about to become a free agent. Murray set the franchise record with 1,845 rushing yards and was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Garrett so wanted to keep Murray that he was still calling the running back as he was on a plane to sign a gigantic contract with the Philadelphia Eagles even though the Cowboys’ front office would not come close to touching the five-year, $42 million deal that included $18 million that was fully guaranteed. The Cowboys’ final offer was four years, $24 million that included $12 million fully guaranteed.
They drew their line in the financial sand.
Now, the Cowboys are in a similar situation with Ezekiel Elliott, who is under contract until 2020 with the team picking up his fifth-year option at a cost of $9.09 million.
There have been discussions regarding a new contract for Elliott, but rumors have persisted the entire offseason that he could skip training camp even if it could cost him $30,000 a day in fines and about $226,000 if he misses a preseason game. If he doesn’t show up to camp by Aug. 6, he loses an accrued season toward free agency, so would an 11-day holdout mean much?
Understanding a running back’s marketability is finite, Elliott wants a new deal sooner rather than later. The Los Angeles Rams signed Todd Gurley II to a four-year, $60 million extension that included $45 million in guarantees last summer as he entered his fourth year. Elliott is about to enter his fourth year. Gurley turned 24 before his fourth year started, like Elliott, but unlike Elliott he entered the league with concerns about his knee from an injury suffered while at Georgia.
Elliott turned 24 on Monday. Murray was 27 when the 2015 season started, which played a part in the Cowboys’ decision in contract talks. Does age matter? Or is it carries?
Elliott has 868 carries for 4,048 yards in 40 games. Murray had 934 carries for 4,526 yards in 53 games in his four seasons with the Cowboys. If history holds, Elliott will have more carries than Murray had in four seasons by the third game of the 2019 season.
Murray missed nine games in his first two seasons because of injuries. Elliott has missed six games because of a suspension and was held out of two meaningless season finales to rest. He has not missed a game because of injury.
The Cowboys drafted Elliott with the fourth overall pick in 2016 to prolong Tony Romo’s career but the two never played a meaningful down together. Instead, Elliott helped Dak Prescott thrive, easing the burden on the young quarterback early and aiding his development since.
“I don’t like that expression, ‘plug another back in there,'” Garrett said at the 2015 scouting combine in Indianapolis.
In 2015, the Cowboys first attempted to plug Joseph Randle in and that didn’t work, so Darren McFadden became the lead back. McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,089 yards and he did it mostly without Romo at quarterback because of the QB’s twice broken left collarbone.
The Cowboys were able to run the ball efficiently enough with Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore starting games but was it not as effective because of the quarterback play? Probably so, and it resulted in a 4-12 record.
That record led the Cowboys to Elliott.
In Elliott’s absence in 2017, the Cowboys went 3-3. The running game with Alfred Morris and Rod Smith was decent statistically (121.3 yards per game) but the Cowboys scored one touchdown in a three-game losing streak span and Prescott threw for more than 212 yards in a game just once. The Cowboys were also without left tackle Tyron Smith for two of the first three games. Did Smith’s absence hurt more than Elliott’s? Maybe so.
In 2014, the Cowboys changed their way of life with the drafting of guard Zack Martin in the first round coming on the heels of Smith (2011) and Travis Frederick (2013) in the first round. They went from a pass-heavy team to a run-dominant team.
Ultimately, the Cowboys made their decision to pay Elliott when they took him at No. 4 overall. When a team uses that type of resource on a running back, it has to be for a generational talent, not just a five-year contractual run. If they don’t pay him after he way he has produced, then they are admitting mistake.
Field Yates and Victor Cruz detail where Ezekiel Elliott stands in the eyes of the Cowboys’ front office with a number of other players in contract negotiations.
Elliott has been exceptional. The Cowboys are 28-12 in games he plays. His off-field issues are concerning, but executive vice president Stephen Jones said the May incident in Las Vegas would not affect negotiations. The team can protect itself from future missteps with the contractual language.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has maintained the Cowboys do not have a pecking order when it comes to re-signing Prescott, Elliott or Amari Cooper — even if Prescott and Cooper are going into the last years of their contracts. The Cowboys have the cap room to sign all three, and they would save money against the 2019 cap once Cooper signs.
There is a deal to be done with Elliott. One that gives the player financial security and protects the team from the inevitable downfall all running backs face.
Holding out is not the answer. Neither is not paying out.