Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Zeke Elliott, This Is Your Wake-Up Call

Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterMarch 22, 2017

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMEBER 13:  Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 13, 2016 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Ezekiel Elliott is wading into dangerous waters, football's CTE nightmare continues and John Elway gets political.

   

1. Ezekiel Elliott Has Some Learning to Do

This past week, Dak Prescott took a break from training in Florida to attend a soccer game in Dallas with his dad. 

Prescott's father cuts a low profile. You rarely hear from or about him, much like his son this offseason. In fact, the only time Dak has popped up was when he was photographed at the FC Dallas game with pops. 

Prescott gets it.

Zeke Elliott, on the other hand, has had a different sort of offseason. First, the NFL is still investigating him for domestic violence allegations made last year. Then there are his antics at a St. Patrick's Day parade, when he pulled at a woman's top and exposed her breasts.

It's not a bright a thing to do while the NFL is crawling all over your life.

So far, Elliott is not getting it.

Look, I understand. Players party. They should party. Rob Gronkowski parties like the world is coming to an end. They're young men. Elliott isn't a bad guy because he stays out late or hangs out or parties on a boat, just like Prescott isn't automatically a good guy because he's at a soccer game.

Still, it's important that players "get it." This isn't about morality or perceived morality. This is about common sense. Players who "get it" understand they're not at Ohio State any longer. Players who "get it" know they play for the Dallas Cowboys, perhaps the most famous team in all of sports, and everyone, everywhere, watches everything they do.

A number of players have said as much publicly. The first was fellow Ohio Stater Chris Spielman to TMZ.

"I want people to stop saying he's 'a young man,'" Spielman said. "There comes a point in time when we all know right from wrong. … At what point is it OK to pull some woman's shirt down in public? What point tells you this seems like a good idea? So it's not, 'He's a young guy.'

"He is bringing this upon himself. Nobody is bringing this upon him. And he's not young. He is of the age where he knows right from wrong, so let's stop with the young card; I can't stand it. There are no more young cards. It's never OK to pull somebody's shirt down. That's insane to even justify that behavior. It's crazy."

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24:  Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates with fans after the Dallas Cowboys beat the Washington Redskins 31-26 at AT&T Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The second was former Cowboys defensive lineman Marcus Spears, who recently told 103.3 FM in Dallas (via the Dallas Morning News): "The guy's just got to stop being dumb, man. That's really what it boils down to. And I'm not going to speak on it like I know all of the particulars, but I saw it and I don't understand it.

"I was talking to my wife last night about it. With all of the social media, all of the media coverage that we give because we have to and we have to talk about these things, you would think that these guys would have in their minds and they would understand that I have things that I can't do. And not as a football player, but just as a human. At the end of the day, the eye of the world is on Ezekiel Elliott and [Prescott] because of the success that they had. They not only have the eye of the world, but they play for the Dallas Cowboys, who are always in the eye of public."

Current players understand, too. One who knows Elliott (and says he's a good man) believes he "needs to understand that he's a target."

In talking to people around the NFL, many think Elliott either doesn't understand or doesn't care that he's stepped into a vortex which eats NFL players alive all the time. No matter their talent.

The NFL has programs that are supposed to prevent this, but I've heard repeatedly they are not doing the trick. As Spears said, something about the league's preparation of its younger players isn't always working: "When you see stuff like that, you just sit back and ask yourself what part of the message that the seminars and the speakers and the daily talks and the news coverage and the social media world doesn't stick? Because guys are still out here doing things that are crazy in my mind.

"So I hate to be judgmental, but the most important thing for Zeke is to continue to mature...Decisions that they're making at 21, 22 years old while they're playing in the league, while everybody is kissing their butt and telling them how great they are, will have a profound impact on them moving forward when they're done playing football. Once you leave the field, people have a tendency to forget about you and all they do is remember the bad things."

He added: "I think Zeke just needs to lay low. Have fun, man, have fun. He's young. But do it in the right way and the respectable manner. At the end of the day, no one can fault you for trying to enjoy the hard work and the labor that you put in to put yourself in this position. But you also have a responsibility to not only yourself but your family to take care of business the right way and not get involved in stupidity."

In other words, it's time for Elliott to "get it."

    

2. Two Stars and Our Football Nightmare

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The issue of head trauma in the NFL ebbs and flows, like a dangerous body of water, and it comes to the surface when some of football's more celebrated players become part of the news.

That happened again within the past few days.

Dwight Clark, who caught a pass so famous in NFL history it was nicknamed "The Catch," announced via Twitter on Sunday that he was suffering from the neurodegenerative brain disease ALS. Clark told The MMQB's Peter King how his life has changed and what he thinks may have caused the issue.

"I can't run, play golf or walk any distances," Clark said. "Picking up anything over 30 pounds is a chore," Clark said. "The one piece of good news is that the disease seems to be progressing more slowly than in some patients.

"I've been asked if playing football caused this. I don't know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma."

Clark is at least the sixth former player in the past 10 years to be diagnosed with ALS, according to King.

A day before Clark revealed his ALS diagnosis, news broke that Gayle Sayers, one of the best runners in history, is fighting dementia.

"Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, 'Yes, a part of this has to be on football,'" Ardie Sayers, his wife, told Vahe Gregorian of the Kansas City Star. "It wasn't so much getting hit in the head … It's just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in."

Associated Press

Sayers is 73 and Clark is 60. These are not dramatically old men, particularly in Clark's case. Both could have developed their respective diseases due to natural causes. It's possible football had nothing to do with either case.

But we're kidding ourselves if we don't think football and these casesand many others—aren't related.

As the league focuses on free agency and the draft, the long-term health of its players remains a weight on the entire sport. As we enjoy the games and follow all of the front office maneuvering, it's difficult not to think that we are also watching something doing damage to the same human beings that some of us interact with on a daily basis as we cover this sport, and as others (fans) watch it.

This issue won't go away. It's what the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins once said: CTE and head trauma are the black lung of football.

It appears to be showing up as human capital in people like Sayers and Clark.

About 10 years ago, I saw Sayers at a charity event, and he looked incredible. His mind seemed sharp. It was impossible to tell what was coming, but here we are.

And it's something we'll all have to continue to digest as we watch the sport we love.

     

3. CTE Awareness on the Rise

Before we close this week's chapter on CTE, it's important to note that as sad as these stories are, players are at least starting to accept that potential brain disease is a part of the job. They hate it, but they are starting to understand what playing football means.

One player even told me flat-out that he expects to start "losing some brain function" when he's in his 50s or 60s.

That comment says a lot.

     

4.  The Truth About Troubled Talents

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

After noting Joe Mixon's rise up NFL draft boards last week, I continue to hear the Oklahoma running back, who was caught on video punching a woman, is still rising. Teams are convincing themselves that he's meeting some type of arbitrary standards they have set to draft him.

Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson offered a rare bit of truth-telling about how teams view troubled players. While teams will do their best to investigate players and make sure they can be good citizens, Robinson said ultimately it comes down to their talent.

"I think it's the complete profile of a player," Robinson said at the scouting combine, via Jason Wolf of the Tennesseean. "It's the value that he's going to bring on the field, it's the value that he's going to bring in the locker room. Is he going to be a good teammate? Is he a coachable player? Is he a detailed player? Is he going to fit well in the community?

"We're not looking for a bunch of choir boys, but we're looking for guys that can play football and act like mature adults."

At least he's honest.

    

5. Caution: Draft a QB at Your Own Peril

Here's a sobering note for any team thinking of drafting a quarterback this spring, courtesy of The MMQB's Albert Breer:

Just chalk it up to another example of how dreadful finding a franchise quarterback can be.

    

6. Is it 2018 Yet?

There's no other way to say it: The Jets have already punted on the 2017 season. After signing 37-year-old Josh McCown, they have a quarterback rotation of McCown, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. There isn't much talent among the skill players surrounding those QBs. And though the Jets figure to have a solid defense, it won't be good enough to make up for what is destined to be one of the worst offenses in football next season.

The good news is the Jets will be in position in 2018 to get a good quarterback. They'll need one.

    

7. An End to Jerseygate Many Saw Coming

The CIA, FBI, NSA, Starfleet Security, Section 31, the Battlestar Galactica and God herself were able to find the alleged thief of Tom Brady's jersey from Super Bowl LI. Our national crisis is over. Sleep well.

The scary thing is, I figured some media jabroni was the one who took the jersey. It was the only answer. 

Chances it was someone from the Patriots were slim. It also wasn't likely that someone from the league took it. That meant it presumably had to be either a fan sneaking in or a member of the media.

This is something few people know: Locker rooms are a sieve. There are people everywhere. Most of the time, the troublemakers are kept out, but every now and then, someone gets in who shouldn't.

One player told me he thinks the jersey incident will make some players distrustful of media members—and anyone in the locker room—they don't know. I don't think that player is alone.

     

8. Stick to Sports?

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 04:  Denver Broncos GM John Elway before the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 4, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Four of the biggest reactions I get from a small but vocal minority on social media:

• Your a moran [sic]

• Go to hell

• Star Trek sucks

• Stick to sports

The last one came in droves after I wrote about the lack of interest in Colin Kaepernick from NFL teams last week. (President Donald Trump even mentioned the story on Monday, which is both interesting and scary.)

Which leads me to John Elway.

The Broncos executive vice president of football operations and general manager penned a personal letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking them to confirm the nomination of Neil Gorsuch as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. A Broncos spokesman later clarified on Twitter that the letter wasn't on official team letterhead but on Elway's personal one.

I haven't received many of those stick-to-sports tweets since Elway's note became public.

I get that Elway's support and Kaepernick's actions are two different things. But they're not really all that different, are they? They're both expressing political views. 

But clearly, there is often a dramatic difference in the reaction to players taking political positions and owners or front office executives doing the same.

Elway is a longtime Republican and has strong political views, and that's fine. It also should be fine, however, when players express political views, which is what Kaepernick was doing.

As the country becomes more polarized, this is something we'll all have to get used to.

Our athletes have strong opinions on matters of politics and societal issues. They're going to express them. So will team executives like Elway. 

And we can learn to live with both.

    

9. Officials Are People Too

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 09: National Football League head linesman John McGrath #5 looks on from the field during a game between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 9, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeate
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

It's rare when an official is quoted. With the retirement of three officials, though, their union offered a rare glimpse into their approaches to the game in a press release:

John McGrath (Head Linesman, No. 5) leaves the field after 15 NFL seasons. The University of Kentucky graduate spent his entire career at the HL position and was assigned to Super Bowl XLIV and 11 additional postseason games.

"What a great opportunity to work with some of the best people and officials in the world. I loved every game. I always said I wanted to go out on my own terms, and I did," said McGrath.

Tony Veteri, Jr. (Line Judge, No. 36) spent 25 NFL seasons as an official. During that time, the Manhattan College alum worked Super Bowl XXXV, a Pro Bowl and 17 wildcard, divisional and title games.

"I am proud to have had the privilege to wear the number of my dad who worked Super Bowls II, VII, XII and XV. I'm incredibly thankful to all who supported me on my officiating journey. It was really the best of times," Veteri said.

Bob Waggoner (Field Judge, No. 25) enjoyed a 20-year NFL officiating career where he filled in at every position. The Juniata College graduate was assigned to work Super Bowls at two different positions, Super Bowl XL and XLIX at Back Judge and Field Judge, respectively.

"While I will not miss getting home at 2 a.m., I'll miss all the wonderful people associated with NFL game days. I'm looking forward to spending more time with my grandchildren and finding that antique treasure," Waggoner said.

The NFL should take note of these stories, because with more access comes more opportunities to humanize otherwise anonymous men critical to the game.

Good luck to them all. 

     

10. Don't Draft Kickers High

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 01: Roberto Aguayo #19 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicks a field goal during the game against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium on January 1, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. The Buccaneers defeated the Panthers 17-16. (Photo by Jo
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A year after stupidly using a second-round pick to draft kicker Roberto Aguayo, the Buccaneers signed former Jets kicker Nick Folk to serve as competition.

"Read the stats, [Aguayo] wasn't very good last year," Bucs general manager Jason Licht told Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. "He wants to improve and he's going to work at it. And we still have confidence in him, but you're always trying to get better."

And there's a lot of room for improvement. According to the NFL's research arm: 

This is why you don't spend second-round picks on kickers.

     

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.