Critics of Ezekiel Elliott’s $90 million contract are being silenced by the rejuvenated Cowboys star

Nine months ago, he represented one of the worst contracts in the NFL. Ezekiel Elliott’s production was hitting an all-time low. The Dallas Cowboys running back was fumbling too much, and the powerfully explosive chunk plays that often fueled his “feed me” celebrations were fading. Despite being only 25 years old, something looked remarkably wrong in his game.

But four games into 2021? The only thing fading about Elliott is the memory of him bottoming out last season.

That’s what you have to take away from Sunday’s 36-28 win over the Carolina Panthers, which saw Elliott gash an impressively stout defense for 143 yards and a touchdown on 20 rush attempts. That represents the most carries Elliott has gotten this season, with the offensive coaching staff continuing to manage his workload to keep him fresh and healthy over the course of this year. Perhaps smartly, considering the way Elliott and Dallas set a dominant running tone early against the Panthers, creating an offensive balance that is not only hard for opponents to deal with, but seemingly getting better every game.

As Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said when he was asked about Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott: “Honestly, I think the tale of the day is more just Zeke running the football. I think he had 10 carries for 49 yards at the half, so he was averaging 4.9 yards per carry — and then in the second half, just some of these runs. I think they had a really well-put-together scheme. We certainly loaded the box. We hung the corners out a lot today. A lot of it was yards after contact.”

Not only did the Cowboys dismantle the NFL's top rushing defense coming into Sunday — including backup running back Tony Pollard running for 67 yards — they did it with a version of Elliott that hasn’t been seen since 2019. And you might even need to go back further in one respect: His 47-yard run against the Panthers is his most explosive rushing play since his dominant rookie season in 2016. And his 143 total rushing yards are his most since 2018.

It has been a while since Dallas has seen this version of Elliott, a guy who looks quicker, faster and more decisive — perhaps an indication that he really did show up to training camp in the best shape of his professional career. He's an offensive centerpiece who has gotten stronger every single game of this season after being tasked primarily as a blocker in Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For Dallas, the magnitude of Elliott being this type of player all season cannot be overstated. This is why Elliott was signed to his six-year, $90 million extension in 2019, which remains remarkably rich among running backs. To the point that as soon as the ink dried on the deal, almost anyone with an understanding of the NFL’s positional economics knew it was going to border on impossible for Dallas to make him worth the money. He’d either have to lead the league in rushing every season or becoming a lethal yards-from-scrimmage threat akin to Marshall Faulk or LaDainian Tomlinson. Neither of which seemed likely, given that the team was building to streamline the offense through Prescott.

Even with Dallas stacking the passing game, Sunday was a prime example of when it looks best. The Cowboys were balanced and bullying, with the offensive line and Elliott imposing their will and then Pollard providing a dynamic change of pace. Once that momentum was gathered, Prescott and the passing offense were free to pick apart Carolina versus a defense that had loaded to try and halt Elliott.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has played better each week this season, and Sunday's performance against the Carolina Panthers looked worthy of his big contract. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has played better each week this season, and Sunday's performance against the Carolina Panthers looked worthy of his big contract. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

If it can be replicated, this is what will ultimately make the Cowboys so difficult for opponents to handle and make them the NFC’s upgraded version of the Cleveland Browns — capable of being run-dominant but with the passing weapons and a quarterback to keep up with a breakneck pace, if that is required. And with that plethora of options, Dallas can get more creative with personnel, too, like it did when it put guard Connor McGovern at fullback on Elliott’s goal-line touchdown in the first quarter.

“Defenses don’t know what personnel to put in right now,” McGovern said. “They’re moving all over the place. We're able to throw the ball where we need to. We can run the ball. We have so many different options, weapons all over the field. It’s hard to pinpoint and lock us down to one thing.”

“We’ve been saying this since the beginning — we’re deep at every position,” Elliott said. “We even have some guys injured right now. So just the ability for us to go out there and everyone play well, no one has to take too much of a load, no one has to put too much on themselves. All we have to do is play with each other and play for each other.”

Rhule admitted the Cowboys' versatility was a significant problem for Carolina, explaining that part of the reason for breakdowns in the Panthers’ formidable defense was repeatedly having to adjust toward what they were doing well. It was essentially everything. Rhule was also clear that it was Elliott and the run game that tied it together, and that’s what should be most troubling to the rest of the NFC moving forward.

After all, given the depth at wide receiver and how Prescott performed before his injury last season, his ascent as a statistical pinball machine was expected. But the great unknown was whether the offensive line could stay healthy, and if Elliott still had the special spark that looked like a distant memory in 2020. Now it’s looking like Dallas has it all on offense. It's enough to justify putting the Cowboys among the NFC elites — and maybe even enough to rationalize why Elliott is worth the contract that made him a constant target of criticism.

Asked if Sunday was the “Zeke” that everyone knows, Prescott was clear in his evaluation.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “Zeke’s been himself. It’s just been about the defense presenting the opportunity for him to go and do that and establish himself. But for him just to go out there and have the big runs — have some of those long runs. … It’s just good to see him in the open field, him using his burst. I’m excited for him and happy for him.”

Few will be happier than Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — or the swath of fans who have been looking for this Elliott and wondering if he still existed, or could be worth the contract that looked like a sizable mistake only a few months ago. The win over the Panthers was a response with an exclamation point: Elliott still has the ability to be special enough to make his paycheck worth it. For one Sunday, anyway. The kind of Sunday that Dallas hadn’t seen in too long.