FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Ezekiel Elliott enters his fourth trip to the playoffs with the Dallas Cowboys in a position unlike any of the previous three.
The two-time NFL rushing champion is no longer the top playmaker in the Dallas backfield, and not even the leading rusher. Tony Pollard carries those distinctions now.
Teammates and coaches grade Elliott’s value on a different scale, most notably the quarterback who has been with him since their remarkable rookie seasons together.
“He’s a huge part of the temperature of that locker room,” said Dak Prescott, who was the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in a toss-up vote with his teammate.
Elliott’s just not running quite as hot as he was six years ago.
The 27-year-old should still be the starter for the Cowboys (12-5) in a wild-card game at Tampa Bay (8-9) on Monday night.
Unlike previous postseasons, though, it won’t be long before Pollard replaces him. And the numbers are likely to be similar to the rest of the 2022 season.
Pollard, in his fourth year, had his first 1,000-yard season (1,007) as the first leading rusher for Dallas other than Elliott since the former Ohio State star was drafted fourth overall in 2016.
The 25-year-old Pollard had eight plays of at least 30 yards for the Cowboys this season, six of them for touchdowns. Elliott has just one play at least that long in each of the past three seasons.
Elliott finished with fewer than 900 yards rushing (876) for the first time, and his per-game average has dropped every season since his rookie-year peak of 108.7. He was at 58.4 this season.
Through it all, Elliott’s answer never changed on the topic of an expanded role for Pollard and a shrinking one for him.
“I think we all have the same goal, go out there and win football games,” Elliott said. “However we have to do that, you know, that’s what matters.”
The Cowboys are still counting on the bruising Elliott for the tough yards — a career-best streak of nine consecutive games with at least one rushing touchdown this season proves it.
Elliott also is one of the best pass-blocking backs in the NFL, and has played through injuries in recent years. Elliott has missed just three games because of injury in his seven seasons.
“He wants to do whatever he can,” Prescott said. “Whether it’s be (Pollard’s) biggest cheerleader, whether lead blocking for (Pollard) or a receiver on a reverse or blocking a D-lineman for me for that half extra second or trying to pick up two guys. If they ask him to play defense and rush the passer, I guarantee he wouldn’t hesitate.”
Elliott’s contract isn’t really suitable for a utility guy. It’s been more than three years since he signed a $90 million, six-year extension, and the total amount of the deal still hasn’t been exceeded by another running back.
The $50 million in guaranteed money runs out after this season, which means the Cowboys can cut Elliott without severe penalties under the salary cap. He also could return on a pay cut.
Elliott has said he’ll wait until after the season to think about his contract, or his future with a club that also had Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith.
The focus for now is trying to improve on the 1-3 playoff record Prescott and Elliott share. Smith won three Super Bowls with quarterback Troy Aikman and receiver Michael Irvin.
Considering he and Prescott carried the Cowboys to the No. 1 seed in the NFC as rookies, Elliott has said several times he’s surprised they have just one postseason victory.
If their time together ends with a 1-4 postseason mark, the disappointment would be palpable.
Dallas is in the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time with Prescott and Elliott, and coming off a 23-17 home wild-card loss to San Francisco last season.
“I think there’s a sense of urgency,” Elliott said. “I think the team got a little breath of life that playoffs is here. I like the look in the guys’ eyes.”
Prescott counts on Elliott’s read of the locker room, where they’ve been neighbors since the club’s practice facility opened their rookie year.
Prescott started from the beginning of his first season after Tony Romo was injured in the preseason.
Before Romo’s injury, Prescott was a somewhat forgotten fourth-round pick overshadowed by Elliott, but the former Mississippi State standout was the one with a car.
“So it just kind of happened naturally, becoming best friends,” Prescott said.
And now, fellow leaders, regardless of production.
“When you talk about brotherhood and culture, Zeke as much as anybody in that locker room should get that credit,” Prescott said. “For being able to be light and have fun but at the same time lock in, if you want to see a guy who’s done it better than anyone, that’s him.”
On the field, it’s a different version of Elliott these days.
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