Cowboys’ deal with Ezekiel Elliott is becoming one of NFL’s worst. And it may set up a divorce in 2021.

Nearly 16 months ago, when Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stepped in front of the CNBC cameras after committing to the richest running back contract in NFL history, he sounded like a man who was selling himself — maybe more than anyone else — on the lavish $90 million deal he was about to sign with Ezekiel Elliott.

Jones talked about how Elliott had “worked” and “utilized his skills” to seize his market. He waxed about Elliott’s “big heart” and spun thin logic about how Emmitt Smith proved that running backs could have long careers in the NFL. And in what punctuated the reality of the moment, Jones briefly acknowledged what many were thinking that day.

“When you’re talking about that kind of money,” Jones said, “we’re all overpaid.”

At the time, Jones couldn’t have possibly understood how right he was. In slightly less than two seasons and with the bulk of the deal set to begin unfurling in 2021, reality has come crashing down almost as hard as Elliott’s performance. The two pace-setting deals that helped boost Elliott’s pay into orbit have been exposed as catastrophic (see: Todd Gurley’s now-voided deal with the Los Angeles Rams and David Johnson’s offloaded contract with the Arizona Cardinals), and Elliott himself has seen his perch among the league’s best running backs thrashed by trends that are beginning to lean away from him.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) stands on the field during warmups before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
With two games remaining in the regular season, Ezekiel Elliott is 525 yards short of matching his 2019 rushing output of 1,357 yards. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

How Ezekiel Elliott’s pay looks like eye sore now

Is there still a space for a physical bell-cow runner who devours the majority of carries and doesn’t heavily factor into the passing game? Yes. But his name is Derrick Henry and he’s looking like a unicorn, something Elliott was supposed to be at this point in his career. All other comers with similar skills are split-carry backs whose physical nature is accentuated by a running mate. As for the rest of the league’s special rushers, the ones who dominate the touches in the backfield, they do it by playing significant roles in passing offenses, like the New Orleans SaintsAlvin Kamara, the Minnesota VikingsDalvin Cook and (when healthy), players like the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey and the New York GiantsSaquon Barkley.

The one guy in that entire collection who resembles Elliott’s style the most is Henry, and he is also paid the least in the group, aside from Barkley who is still on his rookie deal. It’s also notable that Elliott secured exponentially more practical guarantees at the signing of his extension: some $50 million, which is $12 million more than what the Panthers gave McCaffrey.

All of this is some ugly math considering Elliott is again struggling with his health and can’t be found inside the league’s top 10 rushers heading into Week 16.

What should be coming into focus with all of this are a few points: Elliott is most definitely not worth his deal right now; he may be a bigger function of Dallas’ offensive line than was previously considered; and with the Cowboys skating on the edge of either having salary-cap issues in the near future or completely imploding into a rebuild, a high-priced running back is a bigger problem than anyone hoped it would be heading into 2021.

That’s not to say Dallas can’t carry Elliott’s contract in 2021, which represents a manageable $13.7 million on the cap. It is to say that the pay is going to look like a beached whale if he repeats a 2020 performance that has put him under an intense microscope. As Jerry said back when the deal was signed, Elliott is overpaid. But he’s creeping into Gurley’s Rams territory, which ultimately was determined to fall into the category of “overpaid by a lot.

Tony Pollard is doing fine behind a suspect offensive line

As deep as Jones’ loyalties might run, they will be tested if the banged up and ineffective Elliott we’re seeing in 2020 flows into a good-but-not-exceptional Elliott in 2021, particularly if Dallas continues to stare down the barrel of an astronomical extension for quarterback Dak Prescott and multiple other financial strains that will come with retooling the team’s defense (which now seems inevitable).

Elliott hasn’t been helped by backup Tony Pollard, who has been running behind the same offensive lines but has been far more productive with his touches the past two seasons — albeit with a limited load, which would likely average down some of Pollard’s effectiveness as his touches increase. But at times, it’s unquestionable that Pollard looks like he’s running harder, hitting his opportunities faster and sliding into a more versatile role in the passing offense as well.

None of that is what Jones had in mind during the late summer of 2019. Instead, he smiled into cameras and gritted his teeth while making jokes about fattening Elliott’s wallet. All of the bluster was justifiable because the future seemed so secure. The offense had its young building blocks in place and an extension with Prescott seemed inevitable (and likely cheaper than what has materialized). The defense had talent and depth. The coaching staff wasn’t quite written off, having exited the 2018 season with a strong run and a playoff win.

Now? A great deal of that certainty has come apart. And nobody is quite certain what is going to happen from here. Maybe the defensive coaching staff gets fired and fitted with teachers who make schematic sense with the talent. Maybe Prescott comes back healthy and on a tear. Maybe head coach Mike McCarthy rebounds and proves that ownership’s complete lack of will to criticize him is well-founded.

And maybe the Ezekiel Elliott the Cowboys hoped they were signing — a dominant load-carry guy in the mold of a Derrick Henry — finally materializes. In the meantime, uncertainty is growing, and the weight of the questions about Elliott will be matched by the burden of the contract he isn’t living up to.

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