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Cowboys Foolish to Risk Super Bowl-Caliber Season on Ezekiel Elliott Gamble

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 30, 2019

FILE - In this May 22, 2019 file photo Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) walks off the field after NFL football practice in Frisco, Texas. Elliott won't face criminal charges in Las Vegas stemming from a scuffle with a security guard at a music festival in May. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson said Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, he and police concluded the results of an investigation
Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

It's been nearly 25 years since the Dallas Cowboys last held aloft the Lombardi Trophy. In the two-plus decades since Super Bowl XXX, they're 4-10 in the playoffs and haven't made it past the divisional round.

That was supposed to change in 2019.

The Cowboys are the defending NFC East champions and have plenty of skill-position talent, a talented young quarterback in Dak Prescott and a stifling young defense. But before they book tickets to Miami for Super Bowl LIV, they'll have to resolve their contract stalemate with star tailback Ezekiel Elliott.

That impasse threatens to derail the Cowboys' Super Bowl aspirations, and digging in is one of the more foolish things that team owner Jerry Jones has done as of late.

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

While speaking with 105.3 The Fan on Wednesday, Jones stated there's been no movement in negotiations with Elliott, who wants to become the highest-paid running back in the NFL. He also made it clear that the Cowboys are ready to face the New York Giants in Week 1 without him.

"I don't have anything to report there. ... No, we don't have anything to report on our contract negotiations. ... We have to be prepared to play without any given player. ... We may very well play without a player that is not coming in on his contract. If that's the case, we'll just play. We'll play and we'll play well."

The negotiations have gotten a bit contentious at times. After Jones replied to a question about Elliott with "Zeke who?," Elliott's agent called the remark "disrespectful," per ESPN's Chris Mortensen.

It was a poor attempt at humor from Jones. But hurt feelings are going to be the least of the Cowboys' problems if Elliott's holdout drags on into the regular season.

It's important to note that Jones and the Cowboys haven't been completely unreasonable in negotiations. Elliott remains under team control through at least 2020, and that's without bringing the franchise tag into play.

Dallas has reportedly made Elliott a contract offer that approaches the four-year, $57.5 million deal Todd Gurley received from the Los Angeles Rams, according to Mike Fisher and Jonathon Shipman of 105.3 The Fan. However, the Cowboys "do not want to guarantee Elliott $45 million" like the Rams did with Gurley, per Fisher and Shipman.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Although Elliott lacks much leverage in these negotiations, he does have one ace up his sleeve. Jones wants a fourth Super Bowl ring, and there is no chance of that happening without Elliott on the field.

Prescott is a good young quarterback. The trade that brought Amari Cooper to Dallas was a huge boost to the passing game. And with a healthy Zack Martin and Travis Frederick back on the field, the Cowboys should again boast one of the NFL's best offensive lines.

The Cowboys also have rookie tailback Tony Pollard, who has been the talk of the preseason in Dallas after piling up 84 yards on 15 carries in exhibition action. Martin told the team's website that he's confident Pollard can handle the load if Elliott's holdout lingers into the regular season. 

"Listen, we're preparing for the season. We're going to play with what we've got. And what we've got is a damn good back in Tony Pollard," Martin said. "Obviously you want (Zeke) out here, but we're preparing to get ready for Week 1."

Pollard has indeed looked good so far. But the notion that the Cowboys can just slot another back behind Prescott and be A-OK is poppycock.

Elliott is arguably the best tailback in the NFL. He has topped 1,400 yards on the ground and led the league in rushing twice in his first three seasons. He's averaged a robust 4.7 yards per carry and showed off his passing-game chops by hauling in 77 catches for the Cowboys in 2018.

In the two seasons Elliott led the league in rushing, the Cowboys made the playoffs. He's the engine that drives the Dallas offense.

Elliott forces opposing defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage, which in turn means more man coverage on the back end. When Elliott missed six games in 2017 due to a personal conduct suspension, Prescott's passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio were the worst of his career. 

Dallas also missed the playoffs that season.

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

Yes, that suspension and Elliott's other off-field dust-ups are a concern. So is the inherent fragility of the running back position. Had Gurley not worn down at the end of last year (followed by reports that his balky knee is arthritic), the Cowboys might not be in this spot at all.

But Jones has insisted that Elliott's off-field transgressions aren't a factor in negotiations, and Elliott has shown no signs of wearing down physically. In fact, dating back to his days at Ohio State, he has thrived under a heavy workload.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 05: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys does the
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Prescott and Cooper are each heading into the final seasons of their respective contracts as well, so the Cowboys can't give Elliott a blank check. Then again, they did just give outside linebacker Jaylon Smith a five-year extension with more than $35 million in guarantees.

The early-season schedule does work in Dallas' favor. The Cowboys host the New York Giants to open the season before a trip to Washington and a home date with the Miami Dolphins. On paper, they aren't likely to have a repeat of the 1993 campaign, when they opened 0-2 with Emmitt Smith holding out.

But there are no "gimme" wins in the NFL, and the Cowboys also face the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles before their Week 8 bye. With a December schedule that includes Philly, the Los Angeles Rams and the Chicago Bears, any kind of early hole could be a killer.

Elliott's holdout could still be much ado about nothing. Despite the reported lack of progress in negotiations, Jones said at the team's kickoff luncheon that he expects the situation to be resolved soon:

Todd Archer @toddarcher

Jerry Jones to the crowd at the Cowboys’ kickoff luncheon at AT&T Stadium about the 2019 team: “We’re missing one but we’ll have him on the field ... And I’m not joking.” He didn’t mention Ezekiel Elliott by name but everybody knew who he was talking about.

But actions speak louder than words. Jones needs to swallow his Texas-sized pride, find some sort of compromise and break open the checkbook for Elliott.

Otherwise, the only way the Cowboys will be visiting Florida in February is a team trip to Disney World.