DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best running back tandems in the NFL, boasting starter Ezekiel Elliott and super-sub Tony Pollard. Few teams can match what Dallas has to offer out of the backfield.
The Cowboys must feel the same way, as they didn’t bother to add another running back in free agency or at the draft.
However, 2020 wasn’t a banner year for Elliott. The unique year was his worst season as a Cowboy, failing to reach 1,000 yards for just the second time in his career.
The only other instance of Elliott being below the thousand threshold came in his sophomore season when he played just 10 games due to a suspension. Elliott also averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry and just over 65 yards per game on the ground.
That isn’t good enough for one of the highest paid backs in the league, or for someone who prides himself on being thought of as one of the best in the game at the position. Elliott appears as though he is taking last season personally and is preparing for a much better 2021 campaign.
2020 was an odd season for Elliott, who looked like he lacked some of the explosive extra gear that put him on the map. The former Ohio State standout still broke tackles and was a solid player as he put up 979 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns, but it was clear that he wasn’t the same player that won two rushing titles in his first four seasons in the league.
Some of Elliott’s woes can be attributed to a litany of injuries along the offensive line and to the team missing quarterback Dak Prescott after Week 5. Without their starting QB, defenses could load up the box on the Dallas offense while knowing that they would be featuring Elliott more. After the Prescott injury, Elliott ran for over 75 yards just three times, a number he eclipsed three times in five games with Prescott.
Playing from behind also didn’t help Elliott’s cause. With the Cowboys trailing in too many games after Prescott went down, it was harder to get Elliott the carries required to help wear down a defense. Elliott is the type of runner who can dominate late in games and help the team seal victories with his punishing rushing style.
In his final 10 games of the season, Elliott had just five games with at least 18 carries and only one with over 20. That’s not enough to get one of the game's best runners into a rhythm or to help carry an offense.
Not everything can be blamed on the line or the injuries. And some of those early deficits came via Elliott’s own making as he struggled with fumbling the ball in the season’s first half. Nevertheless, Elliott didn’t look like the same player as the one he was from his first few years in the league; the eye test and the numbers bear that out.
However, there is nothing to suggest that Elliott cannot get back to his elite level of play. The veteran runner is just one year removed from a 1,357-yard, 14 TD season. Elliott will be 26 years old when the 2021 season arrives, which is still a peak age for running backs. And if he’s putting in the work while taking last year’s results as unacceptable, there’s no doubt Elliott can return to top form.
Getting Prescott back will be a big help, as will a healthier offensive line. Both can contribute to a bounce-back year for a recommitted Elliott on a team that should be expected to have opportunities to close out more games.
The ability of Pollard to spell Elliott during a game will also be a benefit. Elliott doesn’t need to shoulder the entire load for a full slate of games anymore, and it should help him stay fresh and healthy. Pollard’s big-play ability has earned him more playing time and hopefully provides Elliott the opportunity to put away games with fresh legs in the fourth quarter.
This offseason feels different, and Elliott is preparing for a big year. It’s on him to be better in 2021. With Prescott and the offensive line back, there are no excuses. The expectation is that Elliott will return to form and be one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Do you think Zeke will reclaim the throne as one of the league’s best RBs in 2021? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.