Don't tell Cowboys or Ezekiel Elliott that preseason doesn't matter as each side seeks leverage

The Dallas Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott are not close in their contract-extension standoff. Not on average salary. Not on guarantees. And most definitely not in their perception of the leverage each side currently has.

According to multiple sources familiar with the talks, the only game Elliott and the Cowboys will be playing together in the foreseeable future is this current matchup of chicken, with each side waiting for the other to waver under pressure generated in the upcoming preseason games.

For both sides, the motivation from those games will be as simple as it is significant:

  • If the Cowboys’ first-team offense thrives in limited looks without Elliott, the franchise will be strengthened in its stance to withhold a record-setting contract.

  • If the Cowboys’ first-team offense languishes, Elliott’s camp will be emboldened to rally around the theory that set this impasse in motion: That Elliott is the best running back in the NFL and the centerpiece of an offense that helped seize two division titles in the seasons he played a full 16 games.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs off the field after a 30-22 loss against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL Divisional Round at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott is seeking a contract extension and is willing to miss regular-season games in his quest. (Getty Images)

Undoubtedly, someone is going to walk away from the exhibition games feeling like they secured leverage over the other party. And that is going to either spur a contract agreement or drive both sides into deeper holes and the possibility of jeopardizing regular-season games. As it stands, there has already been at least some level of gamesmanship by each side during the impasse.

From Elliott, not only did the running back leave the country and blow off the Aug. 6 reporting deadline to get his fourth accrued season toward free agency (further sending the message that he has dug in), but the Cowboys have also been informed that he’s willing to sit out the season for a new deal. That latter detail was first reported by ESPN’s Josina Anderson and has been confirmed by Yahoo Sports.

As for the Cowboys, director of player personnel Stephen Jones – who is spearheading the Elliott talks – has already publicly stated the team isn’t interested in setting contract records in its negotiations. That message could have been meant for quarterback Dak Prescott and wideout Amari Cooper as well, but there’s little doubt it was aimed at Elliott. Team owner Jerry Jones seemed to reinforce that message when he stated the Cowboys didn’t necessarily need the NFL’s leading rusher to win a Super Bowl.

Dallas’ chess moves don’t appear to have ended at words, either. When Cooper’s agent, Joel Segal, made a recent visit to training camp, Jones made a point to huddle up with Segal and Cooper in full view of reporters. It was the kind of meeting that might signify a deal with Cooper is cooking. But a source familiar with those negotiations said that’s not the case, as Cooper’s representation continues to wait for the Atlanta Falcons to sign wideout Julio Jones to an extension before mulling an appropriate contract number.

Of course, it certainly won’t go unnoticed by Elliott’s camp that seemingly all the important people in the franchise are now lavishing praise on Elliott’s backup running back Tony Pollard. That included Jerry Jones (“Pollard really showed his ability to plant quick …”), Stephen Jones (“He’s probably one that has stuck out…”), head coach Jason Garrett (“He is someone who continues to play fast…”), and even Prescott (“One of the most exciting players to me of this training camp…”.

And if that wasn’t enough, former Cowboys personnel man and new Hall of Famer Gil Brandt even chimed in with a tweet of “great insurance” at the running back position.

All of those comments will become points of data in this standoff with Elliott. Partly to encourage the fan base to stick by the franchise as it tries to pull down Elliott’s contract expectations, while also sending a message to the running back that there are other options. None of this will matter more than the bottom-line reality of what the first-team offense looks like in the coming weeks without Elliott. That will be revealed in the games, and everyone will be measuring what it means moving forward.

In some ways, this game of chicken between Ezekiel Elliott and the franchise is just getting started. And the next few weeks of preseason games very well may provide the momentum for a resolution that has been missing for the last few months.

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