It's getting personal between Jerry Jones and Ezekiel Elliott as clock runs out on preseason

For a great majority of his life as an NFL team owner, Jerry Jones has aligned his football compass with a “Godfather” mantra. He might get forceful. Maybe even cutthroat. And he’d always look to impose his agenda first and foremost. But the decisions often followed an overriding doctrine: It’s not personal. It’s strictly business. Often great for business – for Jones, for the Dallas Cowboys and their players and typically, the NFL at large.

All of which makes the few times Jones slips and gets a little personal, a little emotional, prominent. And make no mistake, Jerry slipped this week. He got a little personal. He got a little emotional. And he exposed a little something when it comes to why the Cowboys and running back Ezekiel Elliott are at a standstill.

All with one line, following a “Zeke who?” joke that fell flat with his star player:

“I’ve earned the right with Zeke to joke – period,” Jones told reporters earlier this week, when asked about Elliott and his camp taking offense to a comment made by Jones on Saturday night. “I’ve earned it. … Let me be real clear about it. I’ve earned that right to joke.”

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15:  Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talks with Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys before the NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and running back Ezekiel Elliott are in a contract dispute. (Getty Images)

There’s one hell of a loaded word in that statement, and Jones repeated it three times so that this is all crystal clear: He has earned the right to say what he said.

That is a strong and personal statement of entitlement by Jones. One that intentionally flashes a blinding spotlight on Jones’ historically strong backing of his running back through a thicket of off-field problems since he was drafted fourth overall in the 2016 draft. Battles that engaged the services of Cowboys team security personnel, the franchise’s legal counsel and even bled into Jones’ relationship with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell – whom the Cowboys owner openly challenged when it came to the commissioner’s nearly autonomous authority over personal conduct findings.

That is what Jones is alluding to when he says he has earned the right to make jokes when it comes to the financial impasse between the team and Elliott. He’s saying that Zeke has had plenty of issues, and the Cowboys have always stepped up to fight those battles alongside him. And apparently, that has a cost. This is where the roadmap starts to stray into dicey territory.

Let’s pin this entire thing down to a very real intersection of personal feelings and business negotiations. From two different vantage points:

In the mind of Jerry Jones

The Cowboys rolled the dice on Elliott when they took him No. 4 overall, at a time when running backs weren’t supposed to be high draft picks.

Then Dallas supported Elliott when he had a litany of off-field issues, both big and small. Jones took that journey very personally. Partially because of the relationship he developed with Elliott over that time, and partially because that journey wasn’t always easy and occasionally put Jones through a meat-grinder with Goodell and some of the other team owners. Inside all of it, Jones felt a loyalty to a player he intended to compensate when the timing was right.

But Jones was also expecting something at the negotiating table. He was going to expect that the player he’d supported and fought for was going to make the kind of deal that left the Cowboys feeling good about it. Sort of like linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was an entirely different kind of gamble, but who showcased his gratitude by doing a contract that had some team-friendly aspects to it.

To Jerry, this is how the whole Zeke thing should end. With a deal that focuses on the team paying good money – but not the best money – and coming to an agreement that is as good for the Cowboys as it is for the player.

In effect, if Dallas feels like it put itself on the line, that love should be reciprocated.

It’s the Smith news conference announcing his extension was both a celebration and a message. One that unequivocally mixed in a marriage of business goals and personal expectations.

Jones shouldn’t be faulted for this. But I’m not going to act like this is just about the numbers, either. There’s an undercurrent of emotions that is starting to surface in this negotiation. And there’s a flip side to the mindset of Jerry Jones.

In the mind of Ezekiel Elliott

First and foremost, if you’re Ezekiel Elliott, you know you were taken fourth overall in that 2016 draft for a reason.

He was seen as a special player. Not just any running back, but the kind of centerpiece that a franchise could build an offense around. Which the Cowboys did over the past three seasons, streamlining a healthy portion of their scheme with Elliott being the engine. So much so that in the two seasons he wasn’t suspended, Elliott was named to a pair of All-Pro teams and helped the Cowboys win the NFC East with a still-developing quarterback. He stands as arguably the best running back in the game. And for good measure, there has been durability, leadership within the locker room and attendance at everything expected from a “program” player.

All the while, he listened to the head coach gush about his aptitude and dedication as a football player. Elliott listened to the CEO call him “the straw that stirs our drink”. And he listened to Jones defend him at every turn as a great team asset who got the shaft in a suspension that never should have happened.

If you’re Elliott, that feels like a whole lot of return for the faith and investment of the Cowboys. It feels like he paid a lot back to Dallas in 2016 and 2018. And it feels like a three-year ledger that turned out even on both sides – with the Cowboys investing a lot of patience, and Elliott returning a lot on the field.

This delivers us to this week. With Jerry Jones feeling like he’s earned some things. But looking across a negotiating table at player who feels like he has delivered some things.

It’s the one thing that is complicating this deal beyond the numbers. And it’s getting to a very personal point.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores on a touchdown pass from quarterback Dak Prescott (4) as Philadelphia Eagles free safety Corey Graham (24) tries to stop him during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Ezekiel Elliott has delivered two rushing titles in three seasons with the Cowboys. (AP)

For all the reporting poured into what Dallas can afford to pay and what Elliott expects to get, there’s the far more nebulous idea of worth. Elliott feels like he’s worth the kind of long-term commitment and top-shelf money that will justify the next five years of brutal punishment that he’s ready to put onto his body. Conversely, Jones believes the Cowboys’ grand roster-building scheme and the privilege of playing for Dallas is worth taking a little less money to accomplish something greater in the long run.

Elliott made his statement by not showing up. Now Jerry is supplying a retort by making an entitled joke and then applauding Jaylon Smith for being the example of the elite-level player who showcases gratitude by cashing smaller checks than he has to. Neither is a great look – for Elliott or Jones.

This is entering a space that isn’t good for either side, with the regular-season opener a little over two weeks away and the standoff becoming more emotional every day. Perhaps the only certainty now is that this impasse is more likely than ever to stretch into the regular season.

That’s a terrible destination that nobody wanted. But it’s what is coming. And regardless of the contract numbers and the thinly veiled jokes or who has earned what, it’s all personal next month. For everyone involved.

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