There's a rather sizable drum the Dallas Cowboys have been pounding all season, and that's the fact they're playing the "long game" when it comes to how they manage player injuries. That's led to taking a deliberate and judicious approach in the return of players like two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott and All-Pro starters Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence, among others (e.g., Neville Gallimore, Michael Gallup), but it appears Ezekiel Elliott stands behind a different percussion instrument -- a trombone.
That said, it's time someone sound the trumpets on their uneven approach here. It's clear to anyone with working retinas that Elliott -- who has proven to be not only super durable, but also to have a very high threshold for pain -- is dealing with a knee issue that goes beyond a pre-game injection. Is it something that's potentially season-ending? No, but it is being aggravated greatly by both a refusal to rest him for at least a game and an offensive gameplan that continues to lean on him as if nothing is physically wrong.
In the Week 13 win over the Saints on Thursday night, Elliott was often seen limping after plays and grimacing as he ran out of bounds on at least one handoff. He'd finish with 13 carries (six more than a very healthy Tony Pollard) for just 45 yards, and continues battling through the lowest stretch of production in his career.
Prior to injuring his knee, his explosiveness was on full display with outings of 95, 143 and 110 yards rushing in Week 3 through Week 5, respectively, but his bad wheel has robbed him of that quickness and speed. Still, it's gone mostly ignored by the Cowboys when it comes to game prep, with owner Jerry Jones pivoting away from any speculation of possibly resting Elliott against the Saints and instead stating the two-time rushing champ would see have a "serious load" at Caesars Superdome.
No, that's not confounding at all (insert sarcasm here).
To his infinite credit, Elliott is accrediting his struggles to everything but his injury -- in the continued spirit of competitiveness of a player who can't fathom how it's OK to make an excuse for lack of production, even when there's a difference between a reason and an excuse, as is the case in his situation.
"The Saints have a good front," Elliott said following the win in New Orleans. "They do a lot of movement. They have a lot of good guys up front. So it was a little tough.
"... We made the plays we needed to make, and all we can do is celebrate this win and turn around and figure out how we can get better."
It is true the Cowboys offensive line struggled mightily against their Saints defensive counterparts, something that spilled over to Pollard as well for much of the game. It wasn't until Pollard burst through for a 58-yard touchdown late in the third quarter that the Cowboys rushing attack gained any traction and, for perspective, it took that home run to give Pollard 71 yards on seven carries, meaning he had only 13 rushing yards on his other six handoffs (2.17 yards per carry).
It was definitely a mostly forgettable evening for the Cowboys running backs, but unless they want to potentially damage their long game in 2021, it's time to scale back Elliott or rest him outright. The mini-bye will help, but how much or how little is to-be-determined, and it doesn't change the reality that says Elliott shouldn't have been on the field in New Orleans.
Three things are true here:
1. Elliott doesn't want to miss games.
2. The team shouldn't let him make that decision, any more than they let Prescott following his calf strain.
3. Elliott is looking forward to the extra days of rest.
"It'll be good to get a break," he admitted on Thursday.
I bet it will.
That break should've arrived before now, and whether he approved or not, because if the Cowboys are to make any kind of potential run in the playoffs, they'll need Elliott healthy for the maximum benefit of a currently struggling offense that is also fueled by his tandem with Pollard. As they turn the page to their first 2021 battle with the Washington Football Team, the Cowboys will have a better idea one week from now on the status of Elliott, or if they should [finally] agree to lean heavily on Pollard with a mix of backup running back Corey Clement, considering both Sewo Olonilua and Rico Dowdle are on season-ending injured reserve.
However, to hear Jones still playing the wrong instrument regarding his star running back less than 24 hours after seeing him try to muscle through an injury that isn't allowing him to -- noting to 105.3FM the Fan on Monday that Elliott is ready -- doesn't evoke a ton of confidence in the team's ability to make the right decision there, as he did with many of the aforementioned players.
"I'm sound with where I am," said Jones. "His trainers, the people that are the closest to his health, his medical situation, they think he's really good to go. And, so, I don't see after a 10-day rest here."
Jones wants Elliott to push through because, unlike the others, he believes pushing the issue is the right medicine for Elliott. In other words, if you're bleeding from a knife wound but can keep walking without making it worse, that's better than taking a moment to get the hole stitched up.
"You know, a lot of times, if you can get through games, if you can push on, then that's better for you than sitting it out," he said, adding to the overall bewilderment of the situation. "You actually, if you have an issue, it improves if you're able to get out and not injure it more. He certainly didn't injure anything more last night. So, I really look forward to a powerful and dynamic Zeke as we move on into this last part of the season."
In the end, this will either all be water under the bridge as recently as Dec. 12, or we'll be discussing how that bridge might be going further underwater -- with no logical explanation as to why it's being allowed to.