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Cowboys Hot Topic: Is Ezekiel Elliott Turning Into A Bust?

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Expectations were sky-high for the fourth-overall pick. And those expectations may be the real problem.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
It’s too early to panic over Zeke.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Week two of the season alleviated a lot of the gloom felt by Dallas Cowboys fans after the opening loss. It is still very early, but getting to 1-1 in the standings makes staying in the playoff hunt much easier. And the continuing growth of Dak Prescott, plus a couple of games coming up that look to be winnable, offer more hope. It is certainly a much better position than might have been expected when Tony Romo went down again with an injury in preseason. But one other expectation has not panned out at all well. Ezekiel Elliott, the much ballyhooed fourth-overall pick, has not exactly set the world on fire at running back, and was pulled late in the win over Washington after losing the handle on the ball twice.

This has led to a lot of concern that the Cowboys may have misused the fourth overall pick of the draft to take Elliott. He was supposed to come in and vault straight to the top of the rushing list. Lined up behind the vaunted Dallas offensive line, he was going to be the best running back ever, walking away with every known award he could get, and a couple more created just to recognize his superb greatness.

Or so the narrative went. Preseason expectations, of course, have this tendency to go a bit awry in the NFL. In reality, football comes at you fast, and what happens when the real games get underway usually winds up bearing little resemblance to what was predicted. Yes, it is early in the season, but how many would have expected before the season that Andy Dalton would lead the NFL in passing yards, and Aaron Rodgers would be 27th? That the Seattle Seahawks would be next-to-last in points scored at 7.5 per game? The predictions for Elliott by many were overblown, which is just par for the course during the giddy optimism of August when everyone thinks their team can get to double-digit wins.

There also was a failure to consider how the loss of Romo affected the plan for Elliott. The rookie was to be the perfect complement to the veteran passer, playing the same role that DeMarco Murray did in the twelve-win season in 2014. Opposing defenses would have to pick their poison. Load the box up, and Romo would eviscerate the secondary. Drop extra men into coverage, and Elliott would carve the defense up on the ground. With Romo out, teams believed that they could stop the Cowboys by stopping the run, which seemed to be a key part of the strategy the Giants used in beating the Cowboys. However, that was a very close affair, and Dallas was just a play or two away from stealing a win despite the impressive run defense they faced. And against Washington, they managed to get a win despite the ground game still being held more or less in check. The emergence of Prescott is going to force teams to pay more attention to stopping the pass, which is likely to open things up for Elliott to improve.

But of course, in the meantime, we have to deal with the obvious failure to date. He had the two fumbles that caused him to be pulled in favor of Alfred Morris. However, his college history was that he was very sure-handed with the ball, and that is something that almost never changes radically for players. This is one thing that was almost certainly a bit of a fluke. And the team may not have done him any favors by protecting him so much in the preseason, or as Newey Scruggs said in a DMN Q&A about Elliott, “The staff didn't want Elliott to get hurt so they put in bubble wrap during the preseason. “ That lack of work (he saw only fifteen carries) may have severely hampered his preparation for dealing with NFL defenders. No matter how high the Cowboys and many fans were on him coming into the league, he is still a rookie with very few reps under his belt against professional players.

But meanwhile, we are stuck with his dismal, horrific production. We all expected him to come storming into the league and be a top ten running back right off the bat. Instead, we must deal with the crushing reality that he is now mired at . . .

Tied for the eighth-best rushing total in the league. That’s right. Only seven backs have more yards running the ball than Elliott. Only three have scored more touchdowns than him so far. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like what you would call a total disaster. And he showed improvement from the first game to the second, increasing his yards gained by about 60%. His per carry average is still too low at 3.3, but that was picking up before the fumbles became an issue last Sunday. One thing he has been very good at so far is short yardage situations, where he has converted almost every third and short situation when the team has called on him.

The role of the offensive line must not be overlooked in this, and that unit has just not been the bunch of bulldozers we all expected. They are struggling to get back to form, and may be suffering from some of the same “bubble wrap” effect. The holes have just not been there for the most part. To some degree, this may be due to stacked boxes, which should also be less of an issue if Prescott continues to thrive. One thing that may set up some big runs in the future was the way the coaching staff used play-action repeatedly on first down to get some big gains with passes. Teams are going to have to respect that, and it should mean that there will be some nice runs in the offing for Elliott.

Yet despite all this, and the fact that Morris is barely ahead of Elliott in YPC at 3.5, the fans are still clamoring to bench the rookie.

Fans, of course, do not have much if any influence on coaching decisions. Besides, we are spoiled, as is well known. We have seen so much success in the (somewhat distant) past, that we expect to duplicate the overwhelming accomplishments of past stars. After all, those great running backs from days gone by hit the league like gangbusters. Right?

Um, maybe not.

He's currently on pace for 1,072 rushing yards this season and 16 rushing TDs, marks that have him besting both Tony Dorsett and Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith.

- Patrik Walker, 247 Sports

There is little question that Elliott still has some real growing to do as an NFL player. But there is also a great deal of evidence to support the idea that the growth will come and he will become more like what many expected. He still has at least a chance to get close to some of the most overblown predictions for his rookie year, and his real value to the team will not be known until the end of his first contract or maybe later. In the meantime, he is the starting running back, and he is not going to ride the bench, at least according to Jerry Jones. If he shows more improvement this week, facing a Chicago Bears defense that is riddled with injuries and that has to respect the way Prescott is throwing the ball, he should be knocking on the door of his first 100 yard game. And if he keeps finding the end zone and moving the sticks on third and one, the team is getting good value from him.

It has only been two games. Give him time, and inject a little realism into your expectations. Or at least try.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB