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Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott might have to stay in Cabo awhile to get Jerry Jones to blink in contract standoff

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Ezekiel Elliott is in Cabo right now, not with the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California. No offense to Oxnard, but that’s not a bad deal.

As long as Elliott mixes in a few crunches and sprints on the beach, then he will, no doubt, be ready to play football the way he has always been ready to play football – rushing the ball with a combination of speed and power that few can match.

How long will that be?

Well, if history is any indication of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ mindset, then Elliott might want to get comfortable in a place that’s easy to get comfortable in.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) reacts to a play during NFL football practice in Frisco, Texas, Wednesday, May. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Running back Ezekiel Elliott hasn't reported to Cowboys training camp as he's in a dispute with management over a contract extension. (AP)

Twenty-six years ago Jones dealt with something similar as star running back Emmitt Smith refused to play until he got a new contract. And the circumstances of 1993 were, if anything, more player friendly then.

Smith had just led the NFL in rushing and the Cowboys had just won the Super Bowl. Set to make just $465,000, Smith wanted a deal that was in line with top NFL backs, namely Buffalo’s Thurman Thomas at $13.5 million over four years.

It was also an era when conventional football wisdom placed great value on running backs. It was believed you couldn’t really win without a great one, a theory that has shifted dramatically in the years since.

Just this week Jones noted to CBS 11 in Dallas that, “you don’t have to have a rushing champion to win a Super Bowl.” Indeed, the last champion to have one was Denver and Terrell Davis in 1998-99.

And so lies Elliott’s problem. He still has two years on his rookie contract. He’s set to make $3.85 million in base salary this year and $9.09 million in 2020 under an option season. It’s good money but not, by NFL standards, great.

It also leaves Elliott, 24, further down the line in his career with even more miles on the tires before he can get a big free-agent deal. Dallas could also franchise tag him in 2021.

Elliott has been a workhorse across his three seasons in Dallas, 868 rushing attempts, plus another 135 receptions. In 2018 he carried the ball 304 times, 43 more than any other running back (Saquon Barkley). In 2016 he went 322 times, 23 more than LeGarrette Blount. A six-game personal conduct policy suspension limited him in 2017 to 242 attempts, but his 24.2 a game was league high.

It’s understandable that he wants to get paid. Yet Dallas has little motivation to do it, especially when Elliott has two years remaining on his deal and a prolonged, LeVeon Bell-style holdout that lasts a season makes little sense.

Needless to say, it may have to come to that if Elliott expects Jones to bend much.

In 1993, Jones was willing to roll through training camp without his star ball carrier. The Cowboys’ argument was that they couldn’t give Smith the kind of deal he wanted because the NFL was about to establish a salary cap the following season.

Smith, though, held strong. When Dallas lost its first two games, his gamble paid off. According to reports at the time, in the Week 2 postgame locker room, players, including quarterback Troy Aikman, spoke out forcefully about the importance of getting Smith back on the team. Rookie Derrick Lassic had been deemed as lacking by the veterans.

Defensive end Charles Haley, with reporters watching, even smashed a locker room wall and shouted, “We can’t win with this rookie running back.”

By Thursday afternoon, Jones had figured out a deal, getting Smith $13.6 million over four years, making him the league’s highest-paid running back. Jones smartly avoided the looming salary cap by front-loading the contract and giving Smith a $4 million signing bonus and $7 million the first season.

Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith (22) jumps over teammate Daryl Johnston (48) for a six-yard gain despite the efforts of New York Giants Stacy Dillard (71) and Myron Gyton (29) in the first quarter on Sunday, Nov. 7, 1993 in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Heflin)
Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith pushed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to the limit in a contract dispute in 1993. Smith won ... and so did the Cowboys overall that season. (AP)

“We now have one of the cornerstones of our team [signed] for the next few years while a lot of the NFL will be in turmoil because of the salary cap,” Jones said at the time.

Well, that won’t work anymore. It isn’t as easy front- or back-loading around the cap. Besides, quarterback Dak Prescott needs a new deal too. So do a lot of Cowboys. How much is Dallas going to shell out for a running back that it controls for two/three seasons – let alone one who keeps finding off-field dust-ups?

It’s a tough spot for Elliott, a victim of his era of football. A generation ago, he’s one of the most valued players in the game. Now, despite his obvious high productivity and value to the team, there are endless doubts about what happens when he gets closer to 30.

Elliott is rolling the dice and hoping the Cowboys see it his way. He’s in Cabo. They are in Oxnard.

If past is prologue however, then Elliott might not want to count on Jones blinking first, at least not until he sees how Elliott deals with missed game checks. In turn, Elliott might need the losses (and frustrations) to start piling up to gain leverage.

Jones had no stomach for losing back in 1993. Dallas was loaded, in the middle of a run that featured three Super Bowl titles in four years. The current team is a contender – and perhaps in Jerry’s mind even a favorite – but this isn’t that team.

It took an 0-2 start to a title contender for panic to set in.

“If the team was 2-0, I possibly would not be here,” Smith said upon signing.

So what’s Zeke's chances of making this work?

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