Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Elliott Has Yet to Show He Can Handle NFL Fame

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJuly 19, 2017

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NFL - Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys poses in the press room with the FedEx Air & Ground Award at the 6th annual NFL Honors at the Wortham Center on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Houston. (Photo by Jeff Lewis/Invision for NFL/AP Images)
Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

The spotlight's on Ezekiel Elliott for the wrong reasons again, players talk openly about facing racial discrimination, and more stupidity in Washington.

    

1. Did Zeke Ignore the Warnings?

This much is certain: Ezekiel Elliott has been warned. Numerous times. 

One NFL executive told B/R that throughout last season several Cowboys teammates, several former Cowboys players and even someone close to the league office all stressed to Elliott that he has to be more careful about his choices off the field.

There was a concern that Elliott, who was named to the All-Pro first team in his first season after being drafted fourth overall by the Cowboys in April 2016, didn't fully understand just how big a name he'd become.

Fast-forward to this week, and it's clear those concerns are still relevant since Elliott found himself on the wrong side of the news again. On Monday, the Dallas Morning News reported he was involved in some sort of bar altercation. The exact details of what happened will sort themselves out. And it is possible that Elliott did nothing wrong, according to a report in the Star-Telegram.

Still, the executive said, this was all predictable, because Elliott never fully grasped that there's a giant target on his back.

"He doesn't understand he has a lot to lose," the league executive said.

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In March, TMZ Sports reported Elliott exposed a woman's breast while at a St. Patrick's Day party in Dallas. The fact the woman wasn't upset, or that it was all in fun, is irrelevant. It was wrong, and it also showed that anything Elliott does in public is now destined to become a story, no matter how harmless he may think it is.

Elliott also is in the midst of appealing a misdemeanor speeding conviction, according to the Morning News. He was clocked going 100 mph in a 70 mph zone on a Dallas-area tollway.

And let no one forget that Elliott is still under investigation by the NFL for alleged acts of domestic violence. Elliott has denied the accusations.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys talks with owner Jerry Jones prior to the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. The Packers defeated the Cow
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The smart play for Elliott would have been to stay out of sight this offseason. For months. Just stay home until the NFL reached its decision. Watch Netflix (House of Cards is excellent. So is the first Star Trek reboot ("Hi Christopher, I'm Nero.").

Yes, he's free to go out as he likes, but with the NFL lurking, and his newfound stardom putting him in the public spotlight, he needed to stay underground.

"I talked to Zeke at the Pro Bowl, him and [Dak Prescott] actually," former head coach and current ESPN analyst Herman Edwards told the Morning News' Jori Epstein. "We had a conversation. And my advice was just that the platform you're on now, everything you do is news regardless. The only privacy you have is in the confines of your home. ...

"It's not saying you can't have fun. You're young. You should have fun. But there comes a point to where you're saying: 'Hey, how's this going to look?'"

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has tolerated the issues of many players in the past, told NBC DFW that in the wake of Elliott's offseason troubles, he would tell his team, "Your actions impact an entire team; they impact an entire fanbase."

Again, Elliott may have done nothing wrong in that bar. But the incident speaks to the point many have been trying to make to Elliott. You're not in Columbus anymore. You're in the NFL.

Watch your back.

    

2. Imagine the Cowboys Without Elliott...

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

So, with everything swirling around their star running back, it's fair to consider what the impact on the Cowboys would be if Elliott were to be suspended by the league for some time. One AFC scout said it may not be as dramatic as you might think: "If it's one game, or two or four or whatever, the Cowboys would still win those games, or at least still be highly competitive. There'd be more pressure on Dak, but I think he could handle it. They have a really good passing attack, and they could refocus the offense to the passing game. I think in the short term they'd be OK."

    

3. Players Aren't Keeping Quiet About Race Anymore

NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 13:  Brandon Mebane #92 of the San Diego Chargers watches from the sideline during a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

When Chargers defensive lineman Brandon Mebane recently discussed the discrimination he and his teammates faced when trying to find housing in the Los Angeles area, few African-American players were surprised.

Damien Woody definitely wasn't.

Woody, who ended a 12-year NFL career in 2010, told B/R he'd heard players had experienced the kind of discrimination Mebane described (though Woody hadn't experienced it personally).

But that doesn't mean he and his family have been immune to prejudice. Woody's kids go to private school. Once, when his wife was picking them up, she was approached by another parent, who introduced herself and handed her a card. Something quickly became clear.

"The other parent thought my wife was a nanny," said Woody, now an ESPN analyst. "She wanted to offer her a job."

When Woody was in the NFL, he was one of football's most intelligent and versatile men. In a career in which he played for three teams, including the Patriots—with whom he won two Super Bowls—Woody was valued for his smarts as well as his bluntness, which hasn't softened in retirement.

"It doesn't matter if you make it as an NFL player, or how wealthy you are," Woody said. "Player or not, as a black man, you still face this sort of stuff all the time.

"What happened to Mebane didn't surprise many players because a lot of players go through things like that all the time."

It's clear in the words of Mebane, Woody and four other black players B/R interviewed that a belief long held by and discussed among many black players in locker rooms and family rooms still holds true: Wealth, success and higher status in society do little to protect them from everyday bigotry.

Damien Woody and his wife at an event in New York City.
Damien Woody and his wife at an event in New York City.Jemal Countess/Getty Images

This isn't shocking; black athletes have experienced this phenomenon for decades.

"I've never experienced [what Mebane did] myself," former Steelers, Giants and Washington player Ryan Clark, also now an ESPN analyst, said. "Obviously, I know this is a reality, though."

Other players, who didn't want to be identified, told me stories of being followed in shopping stores, getting denied housing despite high credit scores and being pulled over by police for what the players felt were unjust reasons.

The difference now is that players feel a greater sense of duty to speak out publicly about the racism they face.

"People tell me it's not true, but they don't understand what it's like to be black in America," Mebane told Ryan Kartje of the Los Angeles Daily News. The only way we can move on and hear each other is by talking about this."

Woody agreed.

"I'm not the person that says, 'Race, race, race,'" he said. "But if I see it for what it is, I'm going to call it out. I don't give a damn what you think."

The reasons for this new era of openness vary. One player explained there's a belief among some black players in the NFL that the country has become less racially tolerant under the presidency of Donald Trump, and speaking about their experiences counters this effect.

Other players said the goal is far simpler: to use the power of football to educate a populace that sometimes doesn't understand the complexities of race in America. That was Mebane's stated purpose.

"One of the big reasons why guys like [Mebane] want to speak out, and why I do it," Woody said, "is this sense that when we say something, we're not believed. There's a lot of people who think that racism is gone and what happened to [Mebane] doesn't happen any longer and it especially doesn't happen to NFL players. But that's not true."

Mebane's experience is likely to be a topic of conversation for years to come. And though some players wondered what the union and NFL could do to better protect players from this type of discrimination, there's little anyone can do.

Except talk about it.

    

4. Do You Feel Lucky?

Feb 2, 2017; Katy, TX, USA; Sherry Collins, of Waco, Texas and former Texas A&M quarterback and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel have fun talking with each other as Manziel walked out for a portrait session inside Stadium Signatures inside the Ka
Eric Seals-USA TODAY Sports

Johnny Manziel has been talking about returning to the NFL, according to Jon Machota of the Morning News, but I don't think it will happen anytime soon. Let me explain.

Two different team officials, one in each conference, told me Manziel's representatives were the ones contacting some teams, not the other way around. There remains little interest in Manziel across the league.

However, some personnel men remain fascinated with Manziel. They see that college tape and fall into the eternal trap of thinking they can fix him, and that's what I've been told is going on in some front offices right now.

Though Manziel remains radioactive around much of the league, I've also been told it would not be stunning for a team to bring him in for a training camp look.

There may be a wide gap between a handful of teams talking about it and teams willing to do it, but wilder things have occurred in this league.

    

5. Still On the Outside Looking In

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

There is still no interest in Colin Kaepernick from NFL teams. Not a lick.

As always, I'll caution that things can change in an instant, but it remains unlikely Kaepernick will be in a training camp, and if he isn't in a training camp, it's unlikely he'll be signed by a team any time soon.

     

6. The Washington Football Team Makes Dumb Move

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins looks on after the New York Giants defeated the Washington Redskins 19-10 at FedExField on January 1, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On second thought, the subhead above should read: The Washington football teams makes another dumb move.

This week the team released a statement that essentially blamed the failed negotiations for a long-term deal with starting quarterback Kirk Cousins on...Kirk Cousins.

This may be true. Or it may not be. Negotiations are tricky and can get ugly, but few teams make them public. Why would you? If you're a player in that locker room, and the team just put the quarterback on blast, it gets you thinking about what that front office would do to you.

Simply put, it was an incredibly stupid move. Trying to portray Cousins as greedy might have worked in the 1980s, when fans were less sophisticated about how salaries worked. Not now. Sure, some fans will buy the Washington line, but most know exactly what Washington was trying to do. Smear its quarterback's reputation to cover its ass for blowing another negotiation.

    

7. Steelers Playing Dangerous Game

Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Steelers decided not to sign running back Le'Veon Bell to a long-term deal. It was a curious decision that left some team executives around the sport puzzled. Bell is considered an epic talent who should be secured as long as possible.

Instead, Pittsburgh used its franchise tag on Bell, essentially giving him a one-year deal that will pay Bell $12.1 million. But Bell has yet to sign it, and in doing that, the collective bargaining agreement allows Bell to skip training camp without penalty.

I know players who are close with Bell, and they have no idea what he will do. They just know he's not happy about failing to get a long-term deal.

It's an interesting situation that could also get ugly, too.

     

8. RG3 May Not Be Done Yet

Don Wright/Associated Press

Several teams told me Robert Griffin III is starting to draw some mild interest—emphasis on mild. Still, there are teams who want to see what he has left. The hesitancy with Griffin, though, is obvious: He's as frail as a snowman in July. But all it takes is one team, and there appears to be more than that willing to give him a look, maybe in camp.

    

9. Hard Work

I'm a geek. I've always loved the little, nerdy things. For instance, I'm fascinated by the work NFL players put into the offseason. Take this video of Brandon Spikes working with a trainer. Watching the speed of his hands, it's easy to forget Spikes is 6'2" and weighs 255 pounds. He's faster than Conor McGregor.

    

10. Don't Bet Against Michael Irvin

The former Cowboys star receiver apparently wants an MMA fight, according to a video posted on TMZ Sports. Irvin trains in the sport, so he knows how brutal it is. But a fight? Totally different animal.

NFL players have made this transition before and haven't been terrible. In part, that's probably because the athleticism transfers from football to fighting. Toughness also transfers, and few receivers were as mentally tough as Irvin. It's an underrated part of his Hall of Fame career. Irvin was fearless going across the middle. He would get blasted and pop right back up.

He'd probably do the same thing in a ring. Or a cage. Or wherever they fight.

    

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