In whatever jersey number, Cowboys’ Elliott needs to up rushing stats in ’21

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Todd Brock
·4 min read
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With the NFL reportedly expected to relax its rules on jersey numbers, much of Cowboys Nation has been in a tizzy over whether running back Ezekiel Elliott will revert back to the No. 15 he wore at Ohio State or stick with the No. 21 that has seen him through his first five seasons as a pro.

But the numbers that fans should actually be concerned with are the ones Elliott is posting on the field.

NFL.com contributing columnist Adam Schein singled out Elliott this week as one of nine players on the cusp of a “make-or-break” year. That may seem like an odd category for a man who led the league in rushing in two of his first three seasons, has missed only one game due to injury, had a record contract bestowed upon him just 19 months ago, and has never finished a season more than 21 yards away from 1,000.

But Elliott’s 2020 campaign was- statistically- his poorest showing to date.

“Elliott let me and the Cowboys down,” Shein writes, “with career lows in rushing yards per game (65.3), yards per carry (4.0), and total touchdowns (eight). It was a complete dud of a season: a total failure to live up to his filthy-rich contract.”

David Moore of the Dallas Morning News concurs.

“The burst he had earlier in his career, the ability to hurdle would-be tacklers, was infrequently seen, if at all,” Moore wrote this week.

“But,” he points out, “there were mitigating circumstances. This offensive line is no longer built to impose its will on the ground. Elliott doesn’t have the room to run he did to start his career. Despite his talk every offseason of improving as a receiver, the strides he’s made in that department are minimal.”

Elliott caught just 32 balls as a rookie in 2016. He tallied six fewer receptions the following year. But his per-catch average was over ten yards both seasons. The Cowboys offense began utilizing Elliott as a pass-catcher far more extensively beginning in 2018- he made a career-high 77 catches- but he’s averaged under eight yards per reception ever since as opposing defenses quickly caught on.

Last season, Elliott managed just 6.5 yards per catch. Granted, many of those balls came as safety-valve checkdowns from the likes of Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci in games where a legitimate deep-ball threat was minimal.

But pick any measurable stat, and Elliott isn’t trending in the right direction.

Tony Pollard has been far more than just Elliott’s backup; he provides the team with an effective one-two punch out of the backfield. And whether it was the cause or the result of a dropoff in Elliott’s production, Pollard saw his touches increase last season. That will likely continue.

But jersey numbers are fun to talk about in the offseason and easy to mock up with photo-editing software. Fans have gotten starry-eyed in the recent days re-imagining the pro shop possibilities, and the players themselves have added fuel to the fire.

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In his No. 21 gear, Elliott has been a workhorse in Dallas. He’s logged 1,413 regular season rushing attempts, already ranking him in the top 100 all-time in terms of total carries. Elliott’s toted the rock more in five seasons than did Jamaal Charles, Brian Westbrook, Mike Alstott, Jamal Anderson, Fred Jackson, and Reggie Bush in their entire careers.

Elliott will turn 26 years old in July. And then he’ll likely surpass Larry Johnson, Deuce McAllister, Duce Staley, and Arian Foster in career rushing attempts before October.

This is not to say that Elliott is washed up, by any means. He undoubtedly has plenty of tread left on the tires. But 1,413 NFL carries is a hard-fought career for many a notable running back.

“The decline isn’t as great as some suggest,” Moore writes, “but there is a decline. It’s incumbent on Elliott to show it’s not irrevocable this coming season.”

Whatever number Elliott is wearing on his jersey, it’s the digits that come after his name in the weekly box score that will warrant far more attention in 2021.

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