If Ezekiel Elliott felt blessed to be wearing the Cowboys' silver and blue at the start of his NFL career, it was only a matter of time before he was cursed ... whether he knew it or not.
In 2016, coming off a challenging 4-12 season, the Cowboys quickly came to realize they had drafted two ready-for-prime-time rookies in Dak Prescott and Elliott. Because of the demands of the position and perhaps because of being a fourth-rounder, Prescott was slightly less ready than Zeke. So the Cowboys rode the No. 4 overall selection to a 13-3 record.
And they rode him -- just as Jason Garrett's teams had done with other backs -- right into the ground.
At 21, Zeke was an NFL superstar.
At 27, he is finished, at least as a Dallas Cowboy.
It's not hard to understand how this happened.
As a rookie Elliott led the NFL in rushing. It's a considerable achievement in any era, but perhaps not a complete surprise since, with 322 carries, he was the league's only back to top the 300 figure. A year later Elliott missed six games with a controversial suspension, so he did not repeat as the rushing champion.
In Season 3, Zeke returned to claim his second rushing title. Celebrated once again , Elliott also won the rushing attempts title (less coveted) by more than 40.
At a time when almost every other NFL team had graduated to sharing running back duties, the Cowboys continued to feature Zeke in a way that was destined to be career-shortening. Yet this didn't stop the club from honoring Elliott with an enormous second contract that quickly became the albatross observers predicted it to be. When the 2022 season ended, Elliott was set to have the highest cap figure among all running backs despite the precipitous decline in his play that, predictably, had been indicated.
In his final 50 carries as a Cowboy in 2022, Elliott gained 100 yards.
He burst onto the scene in 2016 as a 1,600-yard rusher averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. Instant comparisons to Emmitt Smith were inevitable (even if Smith did not reach 1,000 yards as a rookie).
But Elliott never again averaged five yards per carry and only once topped 4.5. His powerful inside running style was established in his first pre-season when he leveled Seattle safety Earl Thomas. Maybe that explains why Thomas wanted to become a Cowboy, just to avoid receiving those body blows from Zeke.
Elliott's workhorse nature benefited the offense his first few seasons but shortened his career. The modern running back is seen as the most dispensable of commodities by NFL coaches and scouts. When you're getting over 350 touches (rushes and receptions) per year, you're doing nothing to challenge that viewpoint.
While it can be argued that Tennessee's Derrick Henry is the true workhorse back to come out of the 2016 draft (he was a second-round pick), as much as the Titans saddle him up and ride him season after season, his 1,877 touches after seven years are 309 short of Elliott's total.
With that in mind, it should surprise no one that Tony Pollard looked quicker than Zeke the day he got to Dallas and that the gap between the two has only grown.
I don't want to paint Elliott as a victim here. He certainly enjoyed those 20-carry games week after week early in his career. As mentioned, he turned that production into a highly lucrative second deal -- one Dallas' brain trust provided him even as they saw his contemporaries, Bell and Todd Gurley, falling apart quickly in their second contract years.
But this was Garrett's way just as it was Bill Parcells' way long before him. When rookie Julius Jones was given seven starts at the end of the 2004 season under Parcells, he averaged 27 carries per game. That included 63 carries in a five-day span -- 30 against Baltimore and 33 in a Thanksgiving game against Chicago.
Can anyone be shocked Marion Barber looked fresher a couple of years later?
Garrett carried on this Cowboys trend and took it to its extreme in 2014 when DeMarco Murray, limited by injuries in his first three years, carried 392 times for more than 1,800 yards in his fourth season. He won the rushing title by a mile and he did it, in part, because the back with the second-most carries -- Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy -- was 80 attempts behind him.
The Cowboys let Murray walk, he had one more productive season out of three, and -- at the same career point Elliott has now reached -- was out of the NFL. Meanwhile, the Cowboys got the final 1,000 yards out of Darren McFadden (Arkansas Razorbacks) in 2015. He totaled fewer than 100 yards the remainder of his career.
The fact that all of this was predictable doesn't diminish what Elliott did in those early years. It's not every back that can withstand the wear and tear that the Cowboys have been known to demand. Pollard certainly couldn't.
Like the other great Cowboys of this century, he doesn't leave with special postseason memories of any nature. But he earned those rushing titles and he elevated a team from four wins to 13 in one season even more than Prescott did.
Elliott carried the Cowboys back into the league's spotlight. The club simply rode him right out of it.