OXNARD, Calif. — Before the first team snap of Saturday’s walk-through at Dallas Cowboys training camp, Dak Prescott offered a high-five to Darius Jackson. It’s a ritual of the quarterback to make sure each player in the huddle is ready to go.
Normally that high-five is given to Ezekiel Elliott, but the NFL’s reigning rushing champ remains away from Cowboys’ training camp awaiting a contract extension that might or might not happen soon.
“Oh man, I mean I never had that in my life so seeing that is amazing,” Jackson said. “It’s amazing because you have the best O-line in the league and then you take your skill set, combine it with that and the possibilities are endless. I’m excited.”
The Cowboys’ hope, of course, is Elliott is back sooner rather than later in this contract dispute and they never see what life would be like with a current tailback group that has a combined six career carries for 16 yards. Jackson has all of them. They came in last year’s season finale against the New York Giants in which Elliott was held out by the coaches to rest up for the playoffs.
The way coach Jason Garrett’s mind works, he did not notice Jackson, No. 26, was running the ball and not Elliott, No. 21. Maybe it was a conscious thought. Maybe not. But NFL coaches are almost trained to move along when a player is not around, either from injury or suspension. For Garrett, it has been like that when Smith has missed games, Elliott was suspended in 2017 and Jason Witten wasn’t on the team in 2018.
“As you’re constructing your team year after year after year and thinking in the offseason how you’re going to put your team together, you want to make sure you have enough guys, enough depth at all the different spots so if something does happen — not that you’re excited about the opportunity — but you say, ‘OK, here we go, now it’s your turn and let’s see what you’ve got,'” Garrett said. “And that’s how we’re wired. That has to be our mentality as coaches. That has to be the mentality of the player, too.”
When the Cowboys were without Elliott in 2017, they could rely on Alfred Morris, who had three 1,000-yard seasons with the Washington Redskins before signing in Dallas. Rod Smith was a lot like Jackson in terms of experience, but he had some positive moments.
Behind Jackson, the Cowboys have two rookies in fourth-rounder Tony Pollard, who was selected to be a change-of-pace back, Mike Weber, a seventh-rounder and Jordan Chunn, who spent last season on the practice squad.
“I like what they’re doing,” running backs coach Gary Brown said. “I think they’re going to be really good for us. They’re getting an opportunity to go out and get more reps and it’s going to be good for them. Tony’s going to be an explosive payer for us. DJ as well and Mike as well. All of them. They all have a chance.”
But none of them are Elliott, although the analytics’ crowd believes running backs are largely interchangeable.
With Elliott, the Cowboys are 28-12, averaged 361.5 yards per game and 4.7 yards per rush, while outscoring opponents by 188 points, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the eight games they have played without Elliott, the Cowboys are 4-4, averaged 297.3 yards per game and 3.9 yards per rush, while getting outscored by opponents by 36 points.
Skewing the numbers are the 2016 season finale in which Elliott did not play and Mark Sanchez took the bulk of the work in a 27-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. During the suspension in 2017, the Cowboys averaged 121.3 yards per game on the ground, but they went three straight games without scoring a touchdown in Elliott’s absence.
All of this could be a leverage point in the discussions between the team and Elliott’s camp, but it all does not matter to the coaches.
Just two practices in to training camp, Elliott has not missed much. He was around for the entire offseason program, organized team activities and minicamp, so he is not behind, even with a new offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore.
“We understand he’s going through business aspects of this thing, but we’re fine,” Moore said. “This is part of the install process anyway. Certainly Zeke has a good foundation. There will be little things he’ll have to catch up on, but we’re still in a good place.”
Not having Elliott now could have a benefit later as the Cowboys are forced to learn what a running game without Elliott could look like.
“That’s kind of maybe part of training camp. We’ll explore some of those things and once we get Zeke back at some point, we’ll re-establish that,” Moore said. “Nothing really changes right now.”
The Cowboys have been ultra-reliant on Elliott.
Since 2016, Elliott has accounted for 73% of the carries by the Cowboys’ tailbacks (868 of 1,191). In 2016, Elliott took part in 71.3 percent of the snaps in games he played. In 2017, he played in 85.5% of the snaps in games he played, and in 2018 he took part in 89.2% of the snaps in games he played.
It might only be the first week of training camp, but not seeing Elliott at practice is different.
“Obviously Zeke has been a really impactful player for us. We certainly want him here,” Garrett said. “But I really do believe this — the next-man-up philosophy really just helps you. It helps the individual player. It helps the team grow and get better. We’ll try to take advantage of this time if any of our players are out with injury or otherwise to help give other guys an opportunity. And I think we’ll ultimately grow as a team as a result.”